Human Trafficker Gets Busy as Libya Migrant Crisis Worsens

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Migrants Wait to Disembark from a Ship in Italy
Migrants wait to disembark from military ship "Bettica" following a rescue operation at sea on May 5, in the port of Salerno, southern Italy. Photographer: Mario Laporta/AFP via Getty Images

After 15 years shipping human cargo, Abu Samir understands the need to soothe his customers.

“I won’t take you on rough waters,” he told a would-be migrant one evening this month, as they stood on a Libyan beach, looking out toward Europe. “I’ll take you when they are smooth like today.”

Abu Samir’s business has been flourishing as more desperate migrants board rickety boats for the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. As Libya’s own conflict worsens, he’s about to get busier.

While many of his clients have been people passing through, Libya’s war and social breakdown are starting to force resident Syrians, Somalis, Nigerians, Sudanese and even some Libyans to leave as the holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves teeters on the brink of collapse. Faltering electricity grids and unmaintained water pipelines add to the grievances pushing people to risk drowning at sea on the way to Europe’s shores.

The vast majority of those who fled to Europe in 2014 were not Libyans, said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations. That will change “if the situation keeps worsening,” he said.

It’s a concern for frontline nations like Italy, which this year has already rescued record numbers from crowded vessels. The European Union is seeking authorization from the United Nations Security Council to take military action against boats used by traffickers, UN diplomats said this month. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will brief the council Monday to clarify and explain operational details, they said.

Rival Governments

The four years since the removal of Muammar Qaddafi has seen Libya lurch from crisis to conflict to civil war. It’s now split between two rival governments and their militia allies, with Islamic State taking advantage of the insecurity to carve out a fiefdom. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 400,000 of Libya’s 6 million people have been displaced by the conflict.

The conflict caused oil output to slump. Libya, an OPEC member, produced 520,000 barrels a day in April, compared with about 1.6 million barrels at the end of 2010, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The plunge in oil prices deepened the country’s economic plight.

Authorities spent more than a quarter of its $106 billion foreign-currency stockpile last year to keep the country running. Still, nationwide blackouts lasting up to 10 hours are likely by August, Electricity Minister Nuredin Salem said in an interview from Tripoli. Contracts with foreign companies to supply mobile generation units were canceled this year as the country couldn’t afford them, he said.

Man-Made River

On the so-called Great Man-Made River, a network of pipelines built by Qaddafi that brings water from southern aquifers to the heavily populated northern coast, the worsening power shortage is shutting pumps.

The system “requires maintenance and power,” Toaldo said. “Both things are missing. God help us if that breaks down in the summer.”

In Tripoli, residents are digging wells on their property or relying on fountains at local mosques. Suleiman Abboud, head of the information department at the water ministry in Tripoli, said officials are working to minimize water shortages. Maintenance work, he said, has been difficult as violence makes conditions unsafe for workers.

Public Executions

Daily life is punctuated by kidnappings, assassinations and threats, said Bilal Bettamen, a 25-year-old who witnessed the wave of violence engulfing Libya from the eastern city of Benghazi.

“After the revolution business was booming in the city, there was entertainment, businesses, malls opening, coffee shops, there was life,” he said. It all went wrong from June 2012, with assassinations, car bombs and public executions.

“By 2013, the city began to feel grim and was slowly dying,” he said. “There’s no police, no leadership, no justice, no law.”

In a report published on Monday, Amnesty International said that as Libya descends further into chaos, xenophobia and racism appears to be on the rise.

Refugees and migrants across the country face rape, torture and abductions for ransom, as well as systematic exploitation by their employers, religious persecution and other abuses by armed groups and criminal gangs, it said.

Prices Vary

Bettamen says he gave up hope of a better future and emigrated to Canada. Others don’t have the resources.

That’s where Abu Samir comes in.

“Libyans who can’t take a flight for political or legal reasons, as well as families and young people who can’t afford air fares, take boats,” said the human trafficker, who’s in his 40s and doesn’t use his birth name for his business. He says he’s shipped 70 to 80 Libyans since last year.

The economics of trafficking, he says, are brutally simple and dictate the likelihood of survival.

The former fishermen charges from $800 to $1,500 per person for a place on one of his boats.

Syrian Baker

“A Libyan or a Syrian can afford to pay more than others, and so they travel in better and less crowded boats and have greater chances of arriving safely,” he said. “Africans pay less.”

Abu Samir’s client on the beach outside Tripoli is a Syrian baker, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Abdelrahim.

“I came to Libya to try and make a living but the country has changed in the past two years and it has become a real threat for me to stay,” Abdelrahim says.

Abu Samir tells the Syrian he’ll be waiting for him on the chosen day. A dingy will ferry migrants to a larger inflatable boat anchored about 1 kilometer offshore that will make the journey to European waters. Abdelrahim says if Abu Samir can arrange for a fake visa in time, he’ll try to bring along his wife, currently in Turkey.

“We have no home, no country,” Abdelrahim said. “We are left with no choices. I feel numb and only think of finding a new, safe home.”

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