Intelligence shows how migrant smuggling groups use chartered flights from Damascus to lure Bangladeshi people to Libya for the dangerous boat crossing to Europe.
Criminal groups are using chartered flights operated by Cham Wings between Damascus and Benghazi to smuggle people from Bangladesh and Syria into Libya from where they are assigned to boats for the dangerous sea crossing to Europe.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi migrants are being smuggled aboard charter flights into Libya where they get onto boats to reach Europe, according to intelligence seen by MaltaToday.
Criminal groups are charging migrants €1,500 each for the transfer between Damascus in Syria and Benghazi in Libya, using flights operated by Syrian airline Cham Wings.
A €500 ‘administration fee’ is also levied, which is probably the money made by the criminal organisations off each smuggled person.
In Libya, the migrants are then assigned to boats that embark on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Italy.
Migrants are given the flight tickets at the airport and these can only be bought in cash from a particular travel agency. Intelligence suggests that smugglers take the migrants’ passports and book the flights on their behalf.
The information comes from intelligence gathered by Frontex, the European border agency, and Italian and Maltese police debriefing sessions with rescued migrants. A report giving details of this smuggling network was presented to the European Commission and made available to EU home affairs ministers last year.
Eyebrows were raised over the past year on the sheer number of Bangladeshi migrants attempting to cross from Libya to Italy in boats that often end up in difficulty.
On 12 March, one such boat capsized in bad weather around 177km northwest of Benghazi with 47 people on board.
In the incident, 30 people went missing and 17 were rescued by the Italian coastguard after an initial attempt by a merchant vessel failed due to the bad weather.
Information suggests that the majority of people on board were Bangladeshi nationals.
The incident prompted Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri to raise the issue in parliament three days later. Camilleri spoke about the chartered flights operated by Cham Wings without giving much detail. He also informed the House that Malta wrote to the European Commission to take action against the airline, which was facilitating people smuggling.
Cham Wings is owned by Syrian businessman Issam Shammout. The airline is part of his family business, the Shammout Group, which is active in the automotive, steel, aviation, freight forwarding, construction, and real estate sectors.
On 20 July last year, the EU lifted sanctions against Cham Wings, after the company was blacklisted in December 2021 for its alleged role in ferrying migrants seeking to cross illegally into Poland from Belarus that summer.
However, a day later the EU placed Shammout on its sanctions list, calling him a “leading business person operating in Syria”.
Shammout is contesting the sanctions against him at the European Court of Justice.
Cham Wings, which does not operate to EU countries, remains subject to US sanctions and pressure is building within the EU to follow suit.
Flight to Benghazi and the police notebook
Benghazi in eastern Libya is the only entry point by air used by criminal networks that adopt this method of transferring migrants. Eastern Libya is administered by the House of Representatives, a parliament not recognised by the international community, and General Khalifa Haftar and his forces.
The intelligence suggests the air link to Benghazi is also used for Syrian nationals, although both nationalities are smuggled separately. Given the nature of the flights, the migrants do not have assigned seating and according to information gathered from rescued people, the crew’s behaviour on the aircraft is not pleasant towards passengers.
Once landed in Benghazi there are no proper border control checks. Libyan officers check the passports and register the names in “a notebook”. The migrants are then assigned to their respective smuggler, who takes them to the safe house.
Some attempt the dangerous sea crossing from Libya’s eastern shores, while others are transferred to the western Libyan coast for the shorter but no less perilous sea voyage to Lampedusa.
Sources privy to the smuggling network have told MaltaToday that once in Libya, Bangladeshi and Syrians are paying higher rates than other nationalities.
“This is leading criminal groups to prefer Bangladeshi and Syrian migrants over other nationalities on the Libyan corridor,” they said.
Third most common nationality
According to the UN’s refugee arm, UNHCR, 24,647 Bangladeshi people arrived in Europe, mostly Italy, since January 2021. They account for 15.2% of all arrivals in the Mediterranean, making them the third most common nationality.
Between January and February this year, Italy received 1,342 Bangladeshi migrants. Rescue operations in which Malta was involved saw the arrival of around 200 Bangladeshi people last year, most of whom were deported.
Bangladeshi nationals are not entitled to international protection and those that enter Italy or Malta through these illegal channels are sent back to their country. Yet hundreds opt for this riskier route rather than legal channels because it gives them quicker access to Europe.
Some rescued migrants have reported that the whole journey from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to Italy could last five days, which pales into insignificance when compared to the lengthier process involved when going through the legal channels.
Kurt Sansone is Executive Editor of MaltaToday. He was formerly deputy editor of MaltaToday on Sunday and later editor of Illum, before joining The Times of Malta.