Jamal Jowhar

Between Quneitra and Tripoli

Days pass by so slowly and heavily for the families of some migrant children in Libya, without any news to reassure them of their whereabouts. A Syrian mother from the southern Syrian province of Quneitra told us that the last contact with her son Haroun Abdul Hadi, 17, who went missing in Libya, was in October 2022.

“He last spoke to me from the city of Zuwara before the police took him to a shelter in Tripoli,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat through WhatsApp. “I want to check on him. He flew to Libya from Benina airport officially. We have had enough sufferings in our country.”

The tragedy of Haroun is similar to the stories of many Egyptian children and minors, but they are younger. Among them is Ayman Tarek al-Barri from the Asharqia governorate, 83 kilometers north of Cairo, who has not yet enrolled in third grade in middle school.

His sister told us that he went to Libya through the “mountain”, with the help of a Libyan smuggler named “Haj Riad,” who charged him 120,000 Egyptian pounds to transport him to Europe. “They brought him back from the sea together with others, and he is now locked up in Ain Zara prison in Tripoli,” she added.

A similar story can be found in the case of Marwan Abdel Salam, whose mother told Asharq Al-Awsat with a tone full of heartbreak and fear, that he was smuggled into Libya before security forces arrested him. Now, he is detained in the Reayat Al-Sekka prison in Tripoli. Having asked the Anti-Illegal Migration Agency in Tripoli about their whereabouts, we were told by a security official that they were about to be deported.

Panic among the migrants’ families couldn’t hide the sense of guilt among some of them. They felt they were the cause of the plight of their children. Some of these families have openly admitted to us that they sold most of their possessions to smuggle their children. Some of these children have not even completed their primary education, while others were being treated at the children Cancer Hospital in Egypt (57357 Hospital). Their pretext was the “temptations of brokers,” who told them that if their children traveled to Europe, they would go to school, work and send them a lot of money.

Other painful stories are told by Egyptian MP Dr. Sahar Etman, who said in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat: “I have about 2,170 requests from Egyptian families complaining about the disappearance or imprisonment of their sons and daughters, including many children, in Libya.”

The MP, who confirmed to that a child who was being treated for cancer traveled to Libya, added: “This is a true; unfortunately, there are families who did everything to smuggle their children to Libya. What we care about now is the return of those imprisoned or missing to their families.”

The MP, who shows special concern over this issue, attributed the growth of this phenomenon to “what the fraudulent broker portrays to the families of these children. He deludes them into thinking that they will obtain citizenship, and appropriate work; and therefore, he could easily seize from them 120,000 or 150,000 Egyptian pounds for each to smuggling operation into Libya.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has already ratified the amendment of some provisions of the anti-illegal immigration law in April 2022. Anyone who commits, attempts or mediates the crime of smuggling of migrants would be punished with a maximum prison sentence and a fine of at least 200,000 Egyptian pounds.

There are Egyptian villages in various governotrates, including Assiut (Upper Egypt), Asharqia and Gharbia (Delta), where most of their young people fled to Italy through smuggling with the assistance of “brokers”. Others sought to catch up with them out of “social jealousy” and to improve the living conditions of their families, no matter the cost of the trip.

Father of the child, Osama Hamed Abdul-Ati, 16, from Damanhour al-Wahsh village in the Gharbia governorate, told Asharq Al-Awsat about how his son traveled to Libya by smuggling with the assistance of brokers. “We sent him 20,000 pounds, and now he is imprisoned; we don’t know his whereabouts.”

Running in the desert on tramadol

On the Egyptian-Libyan border, the first steps of the “crime of child trafficking” are taking place. An aspect of smuggling routes broker Abu Mazen kept secret will be revealed to us by Egyptian child Amr Atef Mohammed, 15, who returned to his family in Asharqia Governorate in December 2022. He will tell us about it later, and will reveal how a Libyan broker transported him with a group of young people from Matrouh by a “Bedouin” to an area inside Libya.

Part of the torment of the smuggling trip was revealed by the mother of one of the returnees from Libya, referred to as M.A. He is from a village in Bilbeis, Asharqia, and she said that “he has been suffering from disturbing nightmares that leave him terrified” since his return last December.

The mother, who is in her fifties, attributed this to what her son told her about his painful journey, which cost his poor family 120,000 Egyptian pounds, which they borrowed from relatives and acquaintances. She even had to sell her “tuk-tuk”, the family’s source of income.

She added: “The broker’s assistant who accompanied them in the desert trip was threatening to shoot them if they stopped running. He dissolved some tramadol tablets in a bottle of water to give those whose strength fails.”

According to the accounts we got from returnees and their families, migrants, no matter how young, are forced to run for about 10 hours continuously before they reach the town of Emsaed inside the Libyan border or the Siwa Oasis path in Egypt, facing the Al Jaghbub Oasis in Libya.

MP Dr. Sahar Etman, quoting an Egyptian family she met, said that one of its sons had to “abandon his 10-year-old brother in the border area at gunpoint by the smuggler, so that he can join the rest of the group.”

According to a Libyan security expert, who requested anonymity for security reasons, such a group of migrants “becomes hostage to the broker’s assistant, and he had to hand over the entire group to a bigger trader waiting for them in Libya.”

Flights from Syria to Benghazi and back

If the escape by land is covered by the brokers and their assistants, how can minors get around by air? Here, Tarek Lamloum, a Libyan human rights lawyer and director of the “Baladi foundation for Human Rights,” reveals how children pass through some airports. He spoke of increasing reports reaching them, and other human rights organizations, about the loss of contact with minors who arrived in Libya since early February 2022.

Lamloum links a new office for an airline in Benghazi, which he says organizes regular flights from Syria to Libya, to child smuggling operations. “Starting in 2019, we noticed minors entering the country. How can an airport allow unaccompanied children, for example, 14 or 15 years old, to enter planes?” he wondered.

Asharq Al-Awsat contacted Benina International Airport and the company concerned, and their officials confirmed that all their procedures are “in accordance with the law.”

However, Lamloum said: “The smugglers coordinate before the arrival of the flights. Once the passengers arrive in Benghazi, they are transferred to cities in western Libya, where the journey of their kidnapping and detention begins. Many times, minors are found in houses close to the sea, in preparation for their smuggling to European shores.”

The story about the airline, which Lamloum accuses of “taking part in smuggling of children from Syria to Libya,” was later confirmed by Byron Camilleri, the Maltese Interior Minister. On March 13, “The Times of Malta” newspaper quoted the minister as saying that his country asked the European Commission “to take action against human smugglers who send migrants from Bangladesh to Libya, with the intention of crossing to Europe.” He accused the airline, to which the Libyan human rights activist previously referred, of being among those involved.

It did not stop there, but almost ten days after the Maltese minister criticized the airliner, Algerian authorities announced the dismantling of an “international network” for smuggling migrants to Libya, and from there to Europe through Algerian territory.

According to the Algerian news website “An-Nahar online”, the relevant authorities opened an investigation that lasted five months. The investigation allowed the Algerian police to track down the network that transported migrants from Syria and Lebanon to Benghazi airport. Meanwhile, the Central Department for Combating Organized Crime in Algeria announced that it had arrested 15 members of this network; they were nine Syrians and six Algerians, all of whom were brought before the courts.

Prostitution, organ trafficking and militias

The situation in Libya seemed frightening for the families of irregular migrants. News coming to Egypt, or to any African capital, indicates unknown and similar fates that many children in Libya are exposed to, including moving between prisons and official detention facilities, or “secret warehouses” belonging to armed groups.

In parallel with the “dream of wealth” promised by the brokers, large numbers of migrants are now living a painful reality, according to the Human Rights Watch Annual Report for 2023. The report warned that they are subjected to” ill-treatment, sexual assault, forced labor and extortion by members of armed groups, smugglers, and human traffickers.”

“Various foreign gangs stand behind bringing them from several African countries to Libya, with the intention of exploiting them, either in prostitution and begging, or facilitating their smuggling to Italy, after exhausting them financially and physically,” a senior leader of the agency of Combating Illegal Migration in Tripoli said, while discussing the reasons why the migration of children to Libya has increased significantly, at least over the past year.

The security official, who sent us a statement and requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that there are “gangs that bring children to be used for forced labor, obliging them to work for free in remote farms or in scrap stores.”

Having asked the security official about the information we received about trafficking of human organs of the migrants, he vehemently denied it. But days later, the General Directorate of Criminal Research in Sabha arrested a gang that it said was “involved in trafficking in human organs and smuggling irregular migrants from Southern to central Libya.”

The General Directorate of Criminal Investigation explained on December 25, 2022, that the gang members arrested belong to three different African nationalities.

The exploitation of some of these children for begging by “Libyan and African networks”, or abusing them sexually, haunts many families who came to Libya, seeking asylum in Europe. A Syrian mother told us that her son, 14, “was detained by three people, who threatened to kill him, and took turns raping him.”

Ahmed Al-Morabet Al-Zaidani, head of the Legal Committee of the Victims Organization of Human Rights, informed us about what is happening behind the scenes with a larger group of migrant children, who are the “weakest point” both in detention centers and on the Libyan scene. “In addition to the physical violations previously suffered by the Sudanese child Mazen Adam, we have observed sexual abuse of four Syrian children in Tripoli who are asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR,” he said.

“Have you noticed the existence of gangs involved in the sale of children, as is the case with elderly migrants?” Asharq Al-Awsat asked Al-Zaidani. “These crimes may take place in the south-west and south-east of Libya,” he answered.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres submitted a report to the UN Security Council at the beginning of April 2023, in which he revealed that migrant children were subject to violations in Libya, “including forced labor in armed groups.”

According to the report, many children have been victims of “trafficking and abuse,” noting that the United Nations has verified 24 cases of children “abducted from Sudan, registered as asylum seekers, and later sent to Libya to be trafficked.”

‘Information for sale’

This crime goes beyond Egyptian nationals who went missing, to include other nationalities in Libya.

Human rights activist Zaidani informed us about what happened with a Moroccan mother who lost her son, and then unknown people alleged to her that they knew his whereabouts, while others claimed that he was in one of the shelters.

“This misinformation is a form of organized crime in itself, so that information is leaked about the name and family of the missing person, whether he is an immigrant or asylum seeker, and then his family is financially drained. There are several similar cases,” he said.

Apart from suffering, children may be separated from their migrant parents for various reasons, including death or kidnapping, to face an uncertain and dark future. One such incident is related to two children from Cameroon, whose mother was kidnapped a year ago in one of the regions of southern Libya while she was entering the country.

The two children told the “Baladi Foundation for Human Rights” that their mother was detained after she was unable to pay the rest of the agreed amount for the trip. The Foundation believes that the mother is more likely to be subjected to sexual exploitation at the hands of smugglers, after they allowed the children to continue along with the rest of the migrants.


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