Who sent the overcrowded refugee boat to its tragic end in the Mediterranean in early June?
Greek authorities have arrested nine Egyptians, but the real culprits appear to be men with apparent links to Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan warlord the EU has been courting for months.
Dayyan Al-Numan had to wait a long time for his departure. The Syrian recalls by phone how it took weeks. Al-Numan describes a store house on the outskirts of Tobruk, in eastern Libya, where he was forced to wait. Each day, he was given a piece of bread and a piece of cheese, and he had to drink dirty water.
Al-Numan says the time he spent waiting was bad. Humiliation, threats and beatings were routine. He said he had to be quiet and that he wasn’t allowed to leave the store house. Even just asking for a second piece of cheese was going too far. “If they go to the stores in Tobruk and dig the ground around and look around, they will find a lot of bodies.”
Al-Numan, who does not want his real name published for fear of repercussions, is one of around 750 refugees who boarded the dilapidated Adriana fishing vessel in early June. They wanted to start a new life in Europe.
The Italian and Greek authorities as well as the European Union border protection agency Frontex spotted the clearly overcrowded ship early on. The Greek Coast Guard also spent a long time following the vessel. But instead of rescuing people, refugees claim, the Coast Guard tried to tow the fishing boat with a rope. The refugees believe that is what caused the ship to capsize. But the Greek authorities deny those accounts.
The boat sank off the coast of Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula on June 14. Only 104 people survived the deadliest shipwreck of a refugee boat in years, a disaster that shocked Europe.
It didn’t take long for politicians to settle on the main culprit. “We need to fight the smugglers,” said Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, “who sold people tickets not to Europe but to their deaths.” The Greek authorities arrested nine Egyptians who had been on board the vessel. Public prosecutors believe they are the smugglers. The men are facing heavy fines and life prison sentences if convicted.
The prosecution has based its allegations on the testimony of other survivors. Prosecutors assert that the men distributed water and food on board, mistreated other passengers and carried out orders. Family members, however, claim that the men had themselves paid for the crossing, and three families can even provide screenshots verifying this. Two survivors support this version – and claim they were pressured by Greek officials to name the men as the traffickers.
Who, then, is really responsible for the fatal crossing? Who enriched themselves through the refugees and put them on a fishing boat that was so overcrowded that the risk was obvious?
The Trail Leads To General Haftar
A team of reporters with DER SPIEGEL investigated that question together with the research network Lighthouse Reports and the media organizations Reporters United, El País and Siraj.
With the help of Ihab Al-Rawi and his aid organization Consolidated Rescue Group, which provides care for many survivors, the reporters spoke with relatives of people who died in the catastrophe and 17 survivors, interviewed sources in Libya and analyzed court documents.
The research does not fully exonerate the Egyptians. The findings suggest that the real people behind the crossings are not being held in a Greek prison and are instead to be found in eastern Libya.
A total of three sources – a survivor of the shipwreck, the helper of a smuggler and another Libyan insider – have all independently claimed that one of the main culprits is a man named Muhammad A. According to the sources, he works for the so-called “frogmen,” a special forces unit with the Libyan Navy that is controlled by General Khalifa Haftar. Both he and a spokesman for Haftar did not answer detailed lists of questions about all the allegations sent by DER SPIEGEL.
Haftar is a well-connected warlord. He dominates the region in eastern Libya where the Adriana set sail. For the past year and a half, the smuggling business has flourished there. Meanwhile, the route has shifted from western Libya to the east – apparently without Haftar minding much. Italy and Malta, in particular, have been courting the warlord for months, and they could soon strike a deal with him. They want Haftar and his militia to be Europe’s bouncer and stop the flow of refugees. In return, Haftar is likely to be paid handsomely.
If the allegations prove to be true, the man Europe is about to declare a partner would actually be a trafficker himself. Then the refugee disaster in the Mediterranean would further expose the weaknesses of European migration policy: The EU is increasingly relying on dubious partners – and, time and again, on criminal forces seeking to cash in twice.
When the young Syrian Dayyan Al-Numan landed in eastern Libya, some of these men were already waiting for him. He alleges that members of the Tariq Ben Zeyad brigade, Haftar’s men, picked him up from the airport in Benghazi. Benghazi is heavily guarded, but the driver reportedly passed through the many checkpoints without any problems. Al-Numan recalls how one of the men even made jokes about his passenger. “Sure he is going to the sea, do you think Syrians are coming here for tourism?”
Al-Numan says he paid $4,500 to make the crossing. It was a complete package, and the journey to Italy was supposed to begin after a few days. From there, he wanted to make his way to Germany. Other survivors have made similar claims. Until recently, the Syrian airline Cham Wings flew thousands of Syrians to Benghazi, quite obviously with Haftar’s approval.
“All trips are overseen by his son, Saddam Haftar.”
Haftar aggressively promotes the fact that he has a monopoly on the use of force in eastern Libya, says Jalal Harchaoui, an expert on the country. He says that very little happens without Haftar’s knowledge and that the warlord cannot claim that he’s not involved in the trafficking business. Many of the refugees view the matter similarly. “All trips are overseen by his son, Saddam Haftar,” says one survivor.
According to survivors, the Adriana cast off in the early morning hours. The night before, passengers had to be driven from the store house to the bay east of Tobruk. The refugees say that no one gave them any trouble, despite the curfew.
One survivor claims that the traffickers obtained permission from Haftar’s militia. The survivor says they wouldn’t have even been allowed to depart without that permission. He claims that Muhammad A., the member of the Frogmen, bribed the relevant authorities so that they would turn off their radar at the right moment.
The EU is aware of Haftar’s suspected smuggling activities. United Nations staff told European diplomats as early as January that the departures of the refugee boats represented a “lucrative source of income for the eastern Libyan rulers involved.” DER SPIEGEL has viewed a cable on the subject.
Italian Leader Invited Haftar To Rome
But that hasn’t stopped southern EU states, especially, from seeking to work with Haftar. In May, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni invited him to Rome. A short time later, a delegation from Malta traveled to Benghazi. “We will ask Haftar for more collaboration in stopping departures,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said a few days before the shipwreck. The warlord is allowed to present himself as the solution to a problem that he may have created in the first place.
Contacted for comment, a spokeswoman for the European Commission wrote that the EU executive body has no mandate to conduct investigations in this case or to clarify the facts conclusively. The governments of Malta and Italy did not respond to requests for comment.
The Greek Coast Guard said it could not answer the questions because they related to confidential investigative procedures. The agency said the proceedings would be conducted independently and in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Haftar has already signaled to the Europeans that if he wanted to, he would be in a position to stop the migrants. But he’s not a man who seems to have much concern for the fates of people.
An incident on May 25 shows what fatal consequences the actions of his men can have. That’s the day a ship of the Tariq Ben Zeyad militia apparently intercepted a refugee boat that had set course for Europe. An airplane of Sea Watch, an NGO, filmed the event from the air. According to two refugees, Haftar’s militiamen dragged them back to Libya.
These “pullbacks” violate international law, because Libya is not considered a safe haven for asylum-seekers. They don’t save lives either: Most of the refugees who are dragged back venture out to sea again.
According to relatives, that was also the case this time. They claim that at least four refugees who had been pulled back on May 25 later boarded the Adriana – and went down with the ship.