How do “international networks” bring African children to be trafficked and smuggled into Europe?
Big human traffickers hide behind “false names” to round up boys from Africa and Asia for gangs to use them in forced labor, prostitution, and armed groups. Asharq Al-Awsat is tracking cross-border smuggling routes.
He called me from Italy in a frightened, trembling voice. “My brother Adham traveled to Libya, and there was no news of him. We no longer know if he is alive or dead,” he told me. This was one of the calls between us, during which Egyptian Osama Abdel-Tawab Amin informed me in October 2022 about what happened to his brother Adham, 14, who had traveled from Egypt to Libya, heading towards the city of eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Adham, born and raised in the southern Egyptian Assiut Governorate, is one of thousands of minors from several Arab and African countries who long dreamed of emigrating to Europe. Adham is one of those who surrendered themselves to “brokers” to start a “journey of wandering” that may end in either prison, on Europe’s shores, or perhaps a return to their countries, but this time to their “last resting place”.
Asharq Al-Awsat investigated these incidents in the Nile Delta to Sidi Barrani near the Libyan border, reaching other countries, including Sudan and Chad. It sought to document extensive operations that smuggle minors, and explore how they infiltrate Libya, and what parties are involved and benefitting from the situation.
In early 2021, we have observed an increase in Egyptian, African and Syrian families reporting that their children had travelled to Libya and whose fate is unknown. Families were looking for whoever could help return their children. They spoke of how they were “being scammed by brokers.”
Part of this tragedy was unfolded in front of the back entrance of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, overlooking the Cairo Nile. Asharq Al-Awsat witnessed a large number of complaints they submitted there. Complaints were also sent to the Egyptian parliament.
The beginning of tragedy … a broker
In mid-March 2022, the coastguard in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk announced that a migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Wadi Umm Al-Shawsh area. It was carrying a number of migrants, including about 18 young Egyptians. After days of searching for the missing, the family of Egyptian child Amr Sayed Anwar, 15, that lives in one of the villages of Dakahlia Governorate, north of Cairo, was told that their son was among the drowned.
About a month after the incident, I contacted Amr’s father, who lives in a village near Sinbalawin in Dakahlia. The man, who is about 50 years old and works as a daily-paid farmer, said the authorities in Libya have not found the body of his son, tearfully adding: “I lost my son forever”.
The man’s breakdown prevented me from inquiring about how he traveled to Libya, but he exploded angrily when he mentioned the “broker”.
“I paid 30,000 pounds, (US$ 1,000) and Amr traveled with 22 others of his age and may be older. They traveled to Marsa Matrouh to meet the broker. After they arrived in Libya, the broker, again, asked for an additional 70,000 pounds for his travel to Italy.”
I left the Anwar family, consisting of four daughters, all under 20 years of age and a child younger than seven, to their grief and poverty. I went to see the broker after the father gave me his phone number. It was clear that the “brokerage market”, like any other, is subject to supply and demand, bargaining and negotiation and that each Libyan region has a price paid by those wishing to go to it. Prices are also decided based on proximity to the Egyptian border.
It turned out that the broker is widely popular among those wishing to emigrate clandestinely in a number of rural governorates in the Nile Delta, although he lives in Sidi Barrani, 570 kilometers northwest of Cairo. The broker did not respond to any requests for an interview concerning his activity in transporting those wishing to travel across the border. However, he responded to us when we introduced ourselves as parents wishing to send their children abroad.
During the first phone call, I asked him to help smuggle three boys to Libya. He didn’t mind and asked me about which region they wanted to go. Broker Abu Mazen (a pseudonym), whose accent is a mix of Egyptian and Libyan, did not give me time to answer. He went on to specify the required amount and said that he could transfer any number across the Egyptian border to the Libyan inland. He added, as if reassuring me: “I consider them my children, I swear.”
About ten days later, I called Abu Mazen, and it seemed that he forgot our conversation due to the high number of calls he receives, so he asked me to remind him of our past talk. Then, I asked to meet him, and, reluctantly, he asked that we meet a week later in Matrouh.
This call was at the end of May 2022, and before the agreed date, he felt that it would be more appropriate for both of us to meet in Alexandria, as he was going to visit one of his relatives.
In a café overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, in the Asafra area of Alexandria, 230 kilometers north of Cairo, we met as agreed. We talked about how to bring young people together, and how to smuggle them out of the country.
It struck me that the 60-year-old man was speaking comfortably, but when we get to the details, he became cautious. While boasting, Abu Mazen, whose phone did not stop ringing, began to show how he has a strong network of relations inside Libya. He suddenly said: “I do not exploit young people or deceive them. They just come to ask us to smuggle them to Libya, and we help them and leave them only within the area they specify.”
Abu Mazen referred to the many phone calls he received in less than an hour that we spent together at the café, as proof of the growing demand for his services. He was also keen to show that his services are not overpriced “like others.”
He added: “We take care of others’ children. I take 20,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$650) per person to move from the Hodoud Barani to Tripoli, and 15,000 pounds to Benghazi. Others would ask for 40,000 and 50,000 pounds, and then leave the young people on the road, or sell them”. He added: “The Libyan dinar now is equivalent to five Egyptian pounds, (US$1 is equivalent to 5.12 Libyan dinar).”
In response to persistent appeals to show me the smuggling routes, Abu Mazen said: “This has been my job for years, and I have my men in Libya, ten hours away from the Customs Office side. Young people arrive in Libya, and I only leave them when each arrives at the place he wants.” I asked him: “which customs?” He replied with a Libyan accent: ” Emsaed Customs”.
Very discreetly, he said he brings young people from different governorates to the city of Matrouh on a specific date, before transporting them to Salloum, and from there, “they walk in desert roads and routes, along the Emsaed crossing border between Egypt and Libya”.
Having asked him again about the age of young people he helps smuggle, he showed no interest. He only said: “We take the money. We don’t care about their ages.” Laughing, he added: “There is a lot of demand for transporting young people. But what can we do? This is what their families want.”
He explained that those he smuggles “are planning to migrate from Libya to Europe… a trip costs aroun 120,000 to 150,000 Egyptian pounds.” He said he does not receive the full agreed amount in advance so as to “reassure people” that he is not a swindler. He added: “They will not get away with the money. My men in Libya are there.”
Due to increasing smuggling of young people by Abu Mazen and other brokers in the Egyptian Delta, the current situation indicates that smuggling operations exceed the capabilities of the “local network”.
Considering that irregular migration operations are carried out clandestinely, there are no related official statistics. Yet, the International Organization for Migration revealed the presence of more than 117,000 Egyptian migrants in Libya between December 2021 and January 2022.
What we have from Libya inland, and the details the families of migrant children have shared with us reveal a ramified and extended international network linking Libya with several countries, including Egypt and Sudan. The most well-known of these is, perhaps, the “Kidan” network, led by an Eritrean wanted by the Interpol.
The Italian “Information Security Policy” annual report for 2022 refers to “organized criminal networks in Libya, in the cities of Zuwara, Zawiya and Sabratha (to the west). The report considers these networks among chief reasons for the remarkable increase in migration by sea noticed the same year. The report also reveals “criminal partnerships made up of Tunisian and Italian brokers involved in various illegal trafficking operations, including facilitating irregular migration.”
The report attributed the “high pressure of irregular migration flows in 2022, towards Italy and Europe, especially from Africa, the Middle East and Asia”, to factors such as “political instability, armed conflicts, severe climate change and a strong demographic push.”
In addition to the report, Greek authorities are investigating seven Egyptians who were arrested there, according to press reports. They are accused of smuggling 484 people from Syria, Sudan, Pakistan and Egypt, including 128 boys and nine girls, after a rickety boat carrying them from Libya lost its way, near the southern Mediterranean island of Crete.
From Adham, the Egyptian…. to Eissa, the Sudanese
The tragedy of the family of the drowned child Amr, is not much different from what many other families suffered. They all share the same motives and social reasons that prompted them to accept the departure of their children from Egypt by means of smuggling through “brokers”. “Many people have traveled to Italy, and God helped them. They built new houses, and their circumstances improved”, says the mother of child Mossad Mohammed Ismail, from Ezbet Akl, in Mansoura city.
What is remarkable here, as we moved from one governorate to another and listened to some families, is that large groups of those who have fled to Libya, at least over the past year, are children and minors between the ages of 12 and 17. One of them is Adham Abdel Tawab Amin, who left from Borg El Arab Airport in Alexandria, according to his brother Osama, before enrolling in the third grade of middle school.
With great sadness, Osama explained that “the broker got Adham into the plane from Borg El Arab in Alexandria, to Benina airport in Benghazi on August 22, 2022. From there he moved to western Libya. We do not know his whereabouts.”
There are many tragic stories that we have seen related to many children detained in Libya. Some of them are held at official detention facilities, others are believed to be in the grip of human trafficking gangs, while others may have been washed away by the sea.
Our list is long and has hundreds of children from Egypt and as well as other African countries. Apart from Adham, there are Ayman Tarek Al-Bari, 14, Marwan Abdul-Salam ,15, Osama Hamed Abdul-Ati, 17, Ahmed Mohammed Faiq, 17, and Bilal Mohammed al-Jamal, 17.
We met their families successively in Egyptian governorates. There are also the Sudanese Mubarak Harun Musa, who disappeared five years ago, and Abdul Mawla Issa, with whom we spoke by phone. It turned out that he entered Libya at a young age, and recently left it at the age of 23 on an evacuation trip to Rwanda.