It might be the deadliest border crossing on earth. Rickety boats traversing the Mediterranean Sea carry men, women and children, and even tiny newborns fleeing war, persecution and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
“So far, none of boats I filled with people have sunk,” one smuggler boasted to the Guardian newspaper. His operation takes migrants from Zuwara, Libya, to Sicily, where police are notoriously corrupt.
If true, his track record is unusual. More than 2,900 migrants have died at sea so far this year. This past weekend was the worst yet, with two shipwrecks leaving some 700 people dead. Between October 2013 and last April, the Italian navy rescued 20,000.
Some drown. Others die at the hands of ruthless smugglers. In July, migrants travelling from Libya were forced at knife-point into the hold of an over-crowded boat where 29 of them suffocated from fumes, according to the International Organization for Migration. Others were thrown overboard.
“The Libyan smugglers told us when we saw that we had to stay in the hold, close to the engine. We refused. But they had knives and they beat us. We did not have any choice. People on the top two decks had life jackets. But they did not give any to us,” a Nigerian man, who left his home country after the Islamist group Boko Haram killed his parents, told the IOM.
“They put the black Africans in the hold, and the Syrians, Pakistanis and others on the deck,” another passenger named Ibrahim confirmed.
Many who make the crossing to Europe depart from Libya, heading for the Italian islands of Sicily or Lampedusa. Libya has long been a hub for people smugglers. Former dictator Moammar Gaddafi looked the other way. Since his downfall, the country has descended into lawlessness.
Migrants outnumber Libyan border police, who remove the batteries from their trucks at night so migrants streaming in from neighboring countries don’t steal them. “Some local officials in southern Libya estimate that 70 per cent of the young men in their towns and villages make their living from smuggling,” the Financial Times reported. Libyan smugglers include former members of Gaddafi’s mercenary army — the Islamic Legion, who know the terrain and have contacts with Libyan officials, according to a 2011 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.
They have smuggling down to a science. Smugglers in Libya work with others in neighboring countries. “The climate is one of cooperation among middlemen: everything is posited in terms of commercial transactions,” the UNODC report said.
The smuggler interviewed by the Guardian last month viewed himself as a businessman, like a restauranteur or hotelier. “I am not a criminal. I provide a service,” the man said as he smoked a joint and sipped a Red Bull. He is in his 30s, and has been smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean since 2006.
The smuggler told the paper he used to abandon boats full of passengers at sea, assuming they would be rescued. He could afford it, he said, with $1 million per week profit margin. But now new boats are hard to come by in Libya, and smugglers may be arrested if a boat is stopped by the Italian navy. Now, his crews take boats full of migrants 75 miles off of the Libyan coast to the Bouri oil field and call one of the patrolling Italian warships, the Guardian said. The smugglers jump ship in a rubber raft, wait for the migrants to be picked up and then reclaim the boat and return to Libya for more human cargo.
According to U.N. reports, the journey for many migrants begins long before they cross the sea. Some cross mountains and deserts before arriving in Libya, where some reported meeting a middleman in a certain bar or busy market where clandestine arrangements can be made. From there, they are taken to a country house manned by armed guards. Under cover of darkness, they are loaded 50 to 60 at a time onto buses with seats removed to make space for more bodies and taken to a boat.
The journey isn’t the same for everyone. It varies by region and route. And the smuggling operations are fluid, adapting to changing circumstances and law enforcement measures. According to a 2011 UNODC report, maritime smugglers are criminal groups or individuals operating flexibly on the basis of contractual agreements.
According to UNODC reports from 2010 and 2011, sometimes smugglers are migrants themselves who are stranded, possibly after an unsuccessful sea crossing, and now have to work for the smugglers to pay for a second attempt.
Smugglers also include fishermen who coordinate loading of the boats, guides who transport migrants between safehouses and the points of departure, and legitimate businessmen such as truck drivers and travel agents who use their jobs as a cover to move people illegally. Those who feed, house and provide forged documents are also considered smugglers.
Above those people are “chairmen,” who are seen as leaders in temporary migrant communities. They act as brokers, working with guides and local officials to send the migrants on the next phase of their journey.
At the top of the food chain are the connection men. These people have a transnational network of contacts and are able to arrange for false documents and transit. Some of the Libyan bosses are former secret service agents. Others are career criminals. “Many were described as the owners of estates and villas who traveled in large, expensive cars,” one U.N. report said. They often own places where they can hide people: garages, stables, apartments, farmhouses or sheds.
Smuggling is a highly organized business, unlike the rescue operations on which the lives of thousands of migrants depend. The effort is haphazard at best. “There are so many dead bodies floating in the sea,” a Libyan navy spokesman told Reuters after a boat carrying migrants sank off the Libyan coast last weekend. And the Libyan coast guard has few resources to search for survivors.
Some people are saved by commercial vessels. Many are picked up by the Italian navy’s search and rescue effort called Mare Nostrum, but that group’s pleas for help from other EU countries have fallen on deaf ears.
The situation is so dire that a millionaire couple living in Malta, Regina and Christopher Catrambone, retrofitted a salvaged expedition boat for search and rescue, saying they felt called by god to do so after 366 migrants died in a shipwreck last year near Lampedusa.