IT IS 8 a.m. and Ibrahim is chain-smoking in a clandestine flophouse with his new business partners of convenience – Adam, Ahmed, Barka and Sidi. All but Adam are in their mid-20s. They sit on a cheap plastic mat that does little to soften the cracked concrete below it. As soon as one of them finishes a cigarette, another tosses the communal pack of American Legend in his direction. When one carton is kicked, a new one is taken from the stack in the corner and ripped open without hesitation. Breakfast on this morning appears to be sugar biscuits, nicotine and caffeine. The near-constant fidgeting suggests that some members of the crew might have something stronger coursing through their bloodstreams.
Ibrahim is not the leader of this impromptu team of entrepreneurs; he is just the most talkative, and the one who seems most interested in having people understand the extent to which his story is a modern parable of our times. He grew up in southern Libya, where he attended university in the town of Kufra. After earning his degree in agricultural engineering he landed a job at a large-scale farm. He liked his life there, living comfortably off his salary and even saving enough to start a side business – a shop that sold canned goods, bottled drinks and groceries.
But on this stifling Thursday morning in April 2014, Ibrahim is in the darkest corner of a filthy room in a grubby ghetto of Agadez in Niger, 1,600 kilometers [1,000 miles] across the Sahara from Kufra, and a world away from the comforts of his previous life in Libya.
Ibrahim and his cohort are smugglers who specialize in the transport of a very specific commodity: humans.They move migrants who have come to Agadez from all over west Africa into southern Libya. From there these migrants, who are fleeing everything from war to political persecution to grinding poverty, will pay for the chance to be crammed onto an unseaworthy vessel that, purportedly, is destined for Europe. Some of them won’t even make it to the coast.They might fall from the back of an overfilled truck and be left for dead in the Sahara, or they might be kidnapped and held for ransom by criminal gangs or Islamist militants. Others might be forced into unpaid labor, which for the women making the journey often means sexual exploitation.
Across the Sahara, 1,850 kilometers north of where Ibrahim operates, Mansour watches a boat full of migrants launch out to sea from the confines of a half-built beachfront villa several kilometers outside the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Some of the people on board – Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, Malians and other nationals from west Africa – may have reached Libya courtesy of the services provided by Ibrahim and his colleagues. But the vast majority of those on Mansour’s ship are from Eritrea and Somalia, which means that their trips to Libya were most probably facilitated by similar networks operating out of the Horn of Africa, which for decades have specialized in moving and extorting migrants throughout the region.
When Mansour first got into the business of smuggling people, in 2013, he was loading boats with Syrians who paid a premium for his services. Occasionally he would fill the remaining space on a ship with sub-Saharan Africans, padding his profit margin by packing those who paid less into the hold. Now, in 2015, with Syrians preferring alternate routes to Europe, Mansour’s business is predicated on volume, and he loads any vessel he can get his hands on with as many Africans as he can find.
In Athens, 1,100 kilometers north-east of where Mansour watches his boat full of migrants disappear over the pre-dawn horizon, Tony waits for a bus. Only days before, Tony was in Latakia in Syria, with his wife and daughter. He paid a Syrian smuggler $500 to facilitate his passage through ISIS-controlled northern Syria and into Turkey. Once there, he meandered his way across Turkey to the coastal city of Izmir, where he paid a Syrian man who works for a Turkish smuggler to board an overcrowded dinghy for a fee of $800. Under the cover of darkness, Tony and his fellow travelers managed to navigate the Aegean Sea courtesy of an unreliably cheap Chinese motor affixed to the back of their rubber contraption.They steered their boat towards a light in the distance, and, just before sunrise, they washed ashore on the Greek island of Kos.
Tony now waits in Athens alongside a hairless pre-teen from Syria who suffers from cancer. They both have dreams of reaching Sweden; but before they do they will board an unmarked bus leaving from a nondescript intersection in the heart of the city. If anyone asks the sketchy owner of the quasi-legitimate bus company, they are headed to the northern city of Thessaloniki. But everyone knows this bus is full exclusively of Syrians and is going directly to the village of Idomeni, on the Macedonian border. From there, Tony will try to join the unimpeded flow of migrants heading for Germany, but if Hungary decides to make good on its threats to build a wall and block anyone, including Syrians, from entering, Tony will seek out the services of another smuggler and enter into a succession of shadowy arrangements with men he has never met but has no choice but to trust. “Anywhere but Syria,” Tony says, in the broken English he learned from watching movies.
While Tony waits for his bus, Ahmed, his wife and his two children are traveling in style. The owner of a chain of bookshops, Ahmed stubbornly maintained his life in Damascus even as the ongoing civil war was consuming every aspect of it. In the second year of the conflict Ahmed lost his summer home. First, it was commandeered by the army; then it was overrun by insurgent groups, who ransacked the place and sold off family heirlooms that stretched back generations. In the third year he sent his daughter to Beirut so she could continue her studies. Ahmed has barely seen her since Lebanon closed its borders with Syria. The next year Roula, Ahmed’s wife, stopped leaving the house, paralyzed by the fear of constant gunfire and explosions, and suffering from heart palpitations as she nervously waited for her two adolescent sons to arrive home from school each day.
Ahmed had clung to the business that his grandfather had built. He had long hoped to pass it on to his children one day. But as the war dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that things would ever return to normal, and so Ahmed did what he promised himself he would never do. He unfolded a creased piece of paper he had kept in his wallet for several years, and called the number scribbled on it. A few hours later, the deal was done: $36,000 – $10,000 each for him and Roula, $8,000 for each of the boys. His daughter would stay in Beirut and finish her studies, and perhaps join them later. The fake European passports and air tickets were ready in two weeks. They hope that Sweden, their final destination, will offer them peace, stability and the right to work, study and rebuild their lives as permanent residents.
Ahmed drives to Beirut and boards a plane with his family. Casting his eyes to the midnight sky, despite all he has lost, he offers thanks to the smugglers that made it all possible, the criminal heroes who allow him to start his life anew in Europe.
“Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour” is in book stores now, published by Hurst.
Read this Op-Ed from the author Further Criminalizing People Smuggling Will Not Work