Following the Money On the Trail of African Migrant Smugglers

Daniel Etter /DER SPIEGEL

By Alexander Bühler, , Sandro Mattioli and

Part 2: The Human Warehouses on the Coast of Libya


The ruins of the old Sabrata theater can be seen from quite a distance. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it stands witness to a more glorious past under the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius. Today, the several-thousand-year-old city is a hub of international crime and a transfer site for the huge sums earned from human trafficking.

Most of the migrants travelling from Sub-Saharan Africa these days end up in Sabrata and it is also the launch point for many of the boats heading for Italy. Most of the refugees have already travelled thousands of kilometers by the time they reach the city -- and spent thousands of dollars. Eritreans who have already managed to make it across Ethiopia to eastern Sudan have to pay up to $6,000 ( 5,400 euros) for the continuation of their journey to the Libyan Mediterranean coast via the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. For most of them, it is a journey full of suffering, with many taken hostage in the Sahara -- locked up and systematically abused -- until their families back home send money for the next stage of the trip.

Eighteen-year-old Fanos Okba, who was raped in one such camp before surviving the tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, says: "We were forced to stand the entire day and watch as other migrants were tortured in a variety of ways -- with electric shocks, lashes to the soles of their feet and with a rope that was tied around their legs and neck in such a way that even the smallest movement could lead to their strangulation."

To end their suffering, family members have to pay, sending money to accounts in Sudan, Israel or Dubai. Or they sent the ransom money using the Middle Eastern transfer system known as "hawala." It is a system that works on the basis of trust: one person accepts the money on consignment and a second person pays that exact same money out to the end recipient elsewhere in the world. Only when the sum demanded has been received does the family of the captured refugee receive a code that they must then send to the mobile phone of the migrant smuggler. Only then can the trip northwards continue.

A Tight Ship

Once they reach the Libyan coast, Ghermay's clients are again locked up, usually in warehouses in Sabrata or on the outskirts of Tripoli. The refugees are given registration numbers to make recordkeeping easier: not unlike in the wholesale livestock trade. Ghermay maintains "direct contacts with migrant smugglers in Sub-Saharan Africa," it says in Italian case files. That allows him to "buy loads" of migrants from other smugglers "to increase his own profits."

Ghermay's senior henchmen, who demand to be called "colonel," run a tight ship. It costs money to keep refugees in the warehouses, which is why those who cannot immediately pay for the passage to Italy are tortured, beaten and worse. According to the aid organization Save the Children, there have been cases of children being held for months and forced to drink their own urine so as to avoid dying of thirst.

All of this is taking place in a country that was granted an "immediate and substantial" aid package worth 100 million euros from the European Union in April 2016. It is happening as ships from Germany and elsewhere in Europe -- part of an EU mission called Sophia -- are patrolling so close to the Libyan coast that migrant smugglers only have to spend a pittance on boats and fuel. A rickety tub, a few liters of diesel and a satellite phone for the emergency call are all that's necessary.

The investigators from Tarik al-Sika are unable to break-up the Sabrata ring because smugglers and heavily-armed militias are working together there hand-in-hand. The militias need money and human smugglers need protection, a profitable arrangement for both sides. And there is plenty of money available: UN Special Representative Martin Kobler claimed a week ago that there are currently thought to be 235,000 refugees waiting near the Libyan coast to be transported to Italy.

The Libyan King of Migrant Smuggling

According to Libyan investigators, Ermias Ghermay is currently living in a neighborhood located just behind the Sabrata water tower. "He roams from city to city," says Major Basem Bashir, the head of the police unit charged with investigating illegal migration in the coastal town. "He is extremely dangerous. Our sources say that he is currently living here."

Recently, Sabrata officials warned that the city's morgue was unable to accept any more bodies of deceased foreigners, saying the building was simply too small to hold all of African migrants that wash up on its beaches: people from Sudan, Nigeria and Eritrea. In July, there were more than 120 bodies, 53 of them showing up on a single day, according to the mayor.

Ghermay isn't the only migrant-smuggling magnate who lives in Sabrata, Major Bashir confirms. The entrepreneur Dr. Mosaab Abu Grein is here as well. Investigators in Tripoli believe he is the Libyan king of migrant smuggling. According to people in town, Mosaab Abu Grein is a 33-year-old father of two sons who has a respectable demeanor and, officially at least, a spotless reputation. There is no international warrant for his arrest. According to officials, he is the owner of the largest beach club in Sabrata but has declined to respond to the accusations made by investigators.

A former accomplice of his, who is now cooperating with the authorities, claims that the businessman smuggled 45,000 people to Europe in 2015 alone -- a number that would represent almost a third of all illegal immigrants who made it to Italy last year. The millionaire businessman was said to have excellent contacts to the Italian mafia and to exert a powerful influence over the human trafficking industry even prior to Moammar Gadhafi's death in 2011. Now, investigators say, Ghermay controls the African refugee smuggling business for clients from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan on his behalf.

Hussam, from the anti-terror unit in Tripoli, merely shakes his head when asked if European investigators are familiar with the findings of their Libyan counterparts. "You Europeans are constantly complaining about the masses of refugees from Africa," he says. "But none of your investigators or prosecutors from Italy or Germany has come to Tripoli to ask what's going on here."


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