Illegal migrants from Africa walk at a naval base in Tripoli after being rescued by Libyan coastguards in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast on August 29, 2017 / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA

By Daniel Howden

The central Mediterranean is now the busiest mixed migration route into Europe. The geography and the politics of the region have dictated roles for the main actors from the E.U. to member states Italy and Malta, as well as Libya and the countries on its southern borders in the Sahel.


III- Italy and the Parallel Process

Helen’s first sight of the Mediterranean came after weeks of clandestine travel. From her home in Eritrea on the horn of Africa, she journeyed to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, across the vastness of Sudan and the deserts of southern Libya.

It cost the 23-year-old’s family $4,000, paid to a network of Eritrean and Sudanese smugglers, and another $2,000 to the Libyans who supplied the rubber boat she was meant to climb into one night in May with another 70 women and children.

The boat did not make it off the beach. A truckload of armed men took the group into custody and delivered them to what appeared to be a prison nearby. At the gates some of the women were told they were being set free while others, including Helen, were ushered into the crowded facility. She would later discover her companions were not freed. They were sold.

About half of the captives were driven to a filthy warehouse. Once inside they were given phones and told it would cost their families $2,200 to free them. In between frantic calls to relatives, inebriated guards took turns raping some of the women.

Helen’s stay at the detention center, meanwhile, was interrupted when she was traded to a Libyan militia who took her to Tripoli. She was held along with other women in an ordinary house in a neighborhood that she thinks was near the city center.

The men holding her took drugs and threatened and sexually abused the women. When some of them resisted efforts to exploit their suffering to extort more money from their families, their children were taken away until they cooperated. While in this house Helen was reunited with some of the group she first traveled with in May and learned what had happened to them.

By August enough money had been paid and most of the women were returned to the care of Eritrean smugglers who took them to a “connection house” in Bani Walid, one of the hubs in Libya’s human traffic trade. After a nightmare tour of the miserable options for migrants in Libya – from official detention centers to illegal warehouses, militia houses and connection houses – Helen is no closer to escape. New forces on the coast have begun to stop all migrant boats from leaving.

Where Have the People Gone?

When the number of refugees and migrants entering Italy by sea dropped dramatically this year – from 46,518 in May and June to a little over 15,000 in July and August – the sudden change caught most observers by surprise. While the E.U. was issuing technical updates on its agenda that appeared to have little impact, a covert, parallel process to curtail migration to Europe was underway, led by Italy.

In June, a group of elders in the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, one of the main departure points for migrants, were called to a meeting with a group they were told were representatives of the Italian government. According to one of the elders present, they were asked to pass a message to the main smugglers: “Tell them the golden age is over.”

Those who heeded the warning would be allowed to keep the illicit fortunes they had made, the visitors told the elders, and would be given the chance to launder their reputations with seemingly legitimate roles in Libya’s security services. Those who did not would be targeted with travel bans and asset seizures, as well as an implicit threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court – which said in May it was “alarmed by the nature and scale of crimes allegedly committed against migrants” and was looking into jurisdiction.

In early July, Mario Morcone, the chief of staff of Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti, met with officials from the U.N. refugee agency in Rome. According to someone present at the meeting, Morcone told the group the dramatic drop in sea crossings would continue, crediting successful talks with Libyan municipalities and promises of development aid.

On the ground in Libya, the “municipal strategy” involved a handful of Libya’s smuggling kingpins who are widely known to Europe’s intelligence agencies. Abdurahman al-Milad, the head of the coast guard in Zawiya, was first identified as a main smuggler by Italian investigative reporter Nancy Porsia.

A cousin of the Khushlaf brothers – Mohamed and Ibrahim, who control the main Zawiya militias, the refinery and the port – the 28-year-old goes by the nom de guerre “al Bija.” He took over the Zawiya coast guard from another officer who was transferred to Tripoli after death threats.

Despite being named in the U.N. panel of experts report in June for involvement in smuggling activities and for firing on migrant and charity boats, al Bija continues to make a show of his wealth. On his Facebook page he recently posted photographs of a new acquisition, a high-end, black and red power boat, mounted with four 250-horsepower engines, bearing the legend “Baltic Pirates” on the side. He also shows off an invitation for a training course hosted by the Swiss government and IOM, billed as “promoting life-saving in maritime operations by the Libyan coast guard.”

The Khushlaf family controls the al-Nasr migrant detention center in Zawiya, which is where al Bija sends migrants when they have been intercepted at sea. Security sources in Zawiya said the prison has been dubbed “Hotel al-Nasr” by inmates as they are subjected to forced labor to pay their way out. In April 2016, 17 migrants were shot dead at al-Nasr after horrendous conditions prompted a mass escape attempt.

In the neighboring port city of Sabratha, Ahmed Dabbashi is the smuggling kingpin. Also known as “al Ammu” or “uncle,” he was named by the U.N. panel of experts as one of two “main facilitators” of migrant smuggling and human trafficking on the Libyan coast. He and his family are well known to Italian authorities.

The Anas al-Dabbashi brigade, named after Ahmed’s cousin who was killed during the 2011 revolution, was hired in 2015 to provide external security at the Mellitah oil and gas compound, which is co-owned by the Italian oil company ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corporation.

The brigade was brought in two weeks after four Italians working for Bonatti, a company servicing Mellitah, were kidnapped. Two of the four workers were recovered from a group loyal to ISIS after a firefight in March 2016; the remaining two were killed. The ISIS fighters were under the direction of Abdullah al-Dabbashi, another cousin of al Ammu.

The Anas brigade used its income from Mellitah to establish itself as the leading military force in the port city. A Sabratha elder said the Italians’ warning was passed to al Ammu in late June 2017. Soon afterward, his brigade took possession of an abandoned prison 1.8 miles (3km) from the oil and gas terminals at Mellitah and has since been operating the facility as a migrant detention center.

After the Anas brigade seized the prison, the interior minister from Libya’s GNA, Aref al-Khoja, traveled to Sabratha to officially release the facility to the local municipality. It was immediately handed over to Ahmed al-Dabbashi – a formality, as his militia was already in charge. And on August 16, al-Dabbashi was accorded the honor of having his Anas brigade deliver medical supplies flown to Sabratha by the Italian Development Cooperation to the local hospital.

Ahmed’s younger brother, Mehemmed al-Dabbashi, runs another militia, Brigade 48, that attracted attention after the sudden drop in migrant crossings. Set up by the defense ministry in Tripoli in January 2017, the brigade was taken over in July by the younger al-Dabbashi, who previously commanded Isam al-Ghur, more of a gang than a militia and known for drug smuggling.

Such murky deals might be preferable to military options, said Hussein al-Thawadi, the mayor of Sabratha. “It was not necessary to use force to get an agreement,” he said. “It was a mutual agreement between Italy, the E.U., Serraj and the smugglers themselves.”

The mayor said he met with Italian officials twice in August, once in Tripoli and once in Rome, and said $20 million was promised to fund development projects in the cities affected by smuggling.

Thawadi denies knowledge of any payments to the militias or smugglers by either the GNA or the Italian government. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra has reported a $6 million payment to the Anas brigade, citing unnamed security sources.

But Italy’s foreign ministry insists the country does not do deals with traffickers. “The foreign ministry firmly denies that there is an agreement between Libyan traffickers and the Italian government,” a spokesman said.

A Quintessentially Italian Solution

At this year’s international economic conference in Cernobbio, sometimes dubbed Italy’s answer to Davos, Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, boasted “we implemented a quintessentially Italian solution” to the migrant crisis.

Aref Ali Nayed, who has experienced firsthand the pitfalls of trying to stabilize Libya, is critical of Italy’s dealings. After the toppling of Gadhafi in 2011 Nayed led a stabilization team for the Transitional National Council, one of the first of several ill-fated efforts to govern the former dictatorship.

He argues that E.U. and Italian actions over migration are making a durable peace harder to find, and said Europe’s rush to recognize the Serraj administration had saddled Libya with a government of “questionable legitimacy” in order to combat migration flows.

Some of the deals we’re seeing are tactical deals with smugglers and militias under the rubric of the (Italian) interior ministry,” said Nayed, who until recently was Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Nayed, who is affiliated with the Tobruk parliament, which does not recognize the Serraj administration, said such deals will rebound on Europeans. “What we’re seeing is a shifting of Europe’s problems to become Libya’s problems,” he said. “Europe can do it now because we’re weak, but it risks creating real bitterness.”

E.U. officials have not questioned Italy’s methods, however, and have assigned $55 million from the emergency trust fund for Africa to Italy’s interior ministry in order to manage Libya’s borders. The reduction in sea crossings has been greeted with elation in Brussels and other European capitals. In a speech to the European Parliament on September 13, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, saluted Italy’s “tireless and noble” efforts.

This summer, the Commission again worked closely together with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and his government to improve the situation, notably by training the Libyan coast guard,” Juncker said. “We will continue to offer strong operational and financial support to Italy. Because Italy is saving Europe’s honor in the Mediterranean.”

Wary of accusations of having trapped migrants in Libya, European policymakers are keen to demonstrate that earlier work in transit countries such as Niger is contributing to fewer migrants reaching Libya and therefore fewer sea crossings. But this is not borne out by the numbers. The most in-depth data on migrant flows into and around Libya is located in the Displacement Tracking Matrix, a battery of spreadsheets managed by Dan Salmon at IOM Libya, stationed in Tunis.

The data, meant to be the “reference point” for the humanitarian and policy community, is based on surveys collected from local authorities throughout Libya, as well as local NGOs. It shows roughly 400,000 migrants in Libya, a number unchanged for at least the past year, which includes many non-Libyans who work in the country and have no intention of trying to reach Europe.

It’s not like counting heads at the border,” Salmon said. “It can only provide the broad stroke and everybody’s looking for the headline.”

A senior official from UNHCR said that it had no indication of reduced inflows into Libya from Niger, Sudan or Chad and only a marginal drop from Egypt.

For Helen, who remains holed up in a smuggler’s connection house, the Europe that Juncker described in Brussels, one that “protects, empowers and defends,” is still far away.

She is not alone. Eritrean smugglers calling in to a radio show run by the exiled activist Meron Estefanos claimed that there are at least 10,000 Eritreans waiting in a network of connection houses to leave Libya. The mayor of Sabratha estimates that there is a bottleneck of 30,000 refugees in and around the ports of northwestern Libya.

By the end of August the Libyan coast guard had intercepted nearly 11,000 migrants at sea during 2017, according to U.N. estimates,­ and anecdotal evidence and security sources suggest the true number is far higher. Those intercepted are meant to be checked on at disembarkation points managed by the IOM and UNHCR before being moved to detention centers.