Following the Money On the Trail of African Migrant Smugglers

Since 2013, over 10,000 migrants have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Behind the deaths lies a multi-million dollar smuggling trade with financial connections to Frankfurt, Italy and Libya.

Daniel Etter /DER SPIEGEL

By Alexander Bühler, , Sandro Mattioli and

He is the most wanted migrant smuggler in the world but there are no photos of him, only an artist's rendering that investigators produced. It depicts a heavyset man with short hair. He is thought to be an Ethiopian in his early 40s and is suspected of having been in the business for the last 10 years.

On the phone, his voice sounds dark and guttural and he chooses his words carefully, his Arabic occasionally punctuated by English words. Words such as "life jackets," which he used in an intercepted telephone call after one of his ships sank off the coast of Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013. "I have never sent along life jackets, is that clear?"

On that day, 366 people drowned as they sought to make it to Europe, within sight of the island of Lampedusa, when their vessel went down. The man who organized the voyage of the wooden boat was vexed by the disaster -- not so much because of the deaths, but because it wasn't good for his reputation. "So many refugees have set off with other organizations and become fish food," he said. "But nobody talks about them." Only he is being hunted, he complained.

His name is Ermias Ghermay.

Since that "day of tears," as Pope Francis called it, around 10,000 more refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean -- an average of one every three hours. During the same period, almost 500,000 people survived the journey to the coast of Italy -- all of which has translated into several billions of euros in earnings for criminal African migrant smugglers over the last three years.

The rules of this murderous business are dictated by Ethiopians, Sudanese and Libyans, but particularly by men from Eritrea. Their homeland is one of the poorest countries in the world, a single-party dictatorship referred to by Human Rights Watch as a "gigantic prison." More than a million Eritreans have fled abroad, representing a huge market for Eritrean migrant smugglers, who are increasingly using the central route across the Mediterranean.

As logs of phone calls intercepted by Italian prosecutors show, the smugglers' envoys in Khartoum, Tripoli, Palermo, Rome, Frankfurt and elsewhere are extremely well networked. Spread across the route, they guide their compatriots northward -- and rake in millions in the process.

Eritreans are responsible for more asylum applications in Germany than any other African country. At the same time, the number of migrant smugglers who go underground in Germany is also growing. Migrant smuggling has joined the arms trade and drug dealing as one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime and has largely become controlled by Eritreans. It is happening under the noses of German officials, whose alleged inaction in the face of the development is met with consternation on the part of Italian investigators.

DER SPIEGEL spent months reporting on the migrant smugglers' network, spending time in Libya, Italy, Frankfurt and Berlin. We examined more than one thousand pages of case files, evaluated confidential records and spoke with refugees who survived the trip across the Mediterranean. The reporting painted a clearer image of the cynical migrant smugglers who are willing to accept the deaths of thousands, who lock up refugees and sell them like livestock.

One of the most notorious of these smugglers is Ermias Ghermay.


The police station belonging to the crack unit known as Tarik al-Sika is located on the eponymously named street in the heart of the Libyan metropolis. This is where the adversaries of Ermias Ghermay and other smugglers are headquartered. For foreigners, the complex had always been off limits, until now.

A steel gate opens onto a courtyard. To the left are the offices belonging to investigators and special forces. To the right are the prison cells. Tarik al-Sika is an elite unit responsible for hunting down human traffickers and members of extremist militias. In contrast to the chaos that has become normal in Libya, the situation here is well-regulated: The shift schedule hangs on the wall and records of the unit's operations are carefully filed away in folders.

Hussam, the shift supervisor, who requests that his last name not be used for security reasons, is wearing a T-shirt and jeans rather than a uniform. He wears his facial hair in the style popular among members of the militia group Libya Dawn: a carefully sculpted half-circle from ear to ear, passing below the lower lip. He wears his hair in a ponytail.


"We know where he and his men are, who they work with, where their movements take them and where they live," he says when asked if he has an idea where Ghermay might be found. He grabs a file and recites what they know: Until 2015, he says, Ghermay lived in a part of Tripoli populated mostly by African migrants, an area notorious as a transfer point for drugs, weapons and alcohol. Hussam says that his unit raided Ghermay's apartment twice, but he managed to escape both times. Currently, he continues, Ghermay is hiding out with his heavily armed bodyguards in Sabrata, a coastal town in western Libya. Unfortunately, he adds, Libyan security officials don't have enough people or weapons to go after him there.

There are many migrant smugglers who brag openly about their excellent relations with the Libyan police and claim that they can even get anyone out of prison simply by buying off law enforcement officers. When asked about such claims, Hussam says that the phenomenon doubtlessly exists in Libya, but not within his unit.

"Ermias is an Ethiopian with Eritrean citizenship and dresses inconspicuously in jeans and a T-shirt," says Yonas, a former intermediary for Ghermay who stands almost two meters (6' 7") tall. Ever since Tarik al-Sika arrested him at his workplace -- in the cafeteria of the Eritrean Embassy in Tripoli -- several months ago, Yonas, whose name was changed for this story, has been cooperating with Libyan special forces. On the day of our visit, he was presented as an important witness. Yonas says that he used to earn 50 dinars, around 30 euros ($33), for every Eritrean refugee he referred to Ghermay -- and that some of them were aboard the vessel that sank off the coast of Lampedusa. On the night of the accident, Yonas says, "Ermias slid a passenger list under the door of the Eritrean Embassy so that their families could be informed" -- a cold-blooded move that Ghermay is proud of, according to the logs of intercepted phone calls. The relatives of the victims, most of whom came from Eritrea, were thus promptly "informed," he gloated. It's the kind of gesture that is good for business.

"Immediately afterwards, I called him and set up a meeting in the cafeteria. I wanted to get him to pay compensation to the families," Yonas says. "He actually turned up, but in the end, he only returned the price for the voyage. Nobody got any more than that."

The refugees have only themselves to blame for their deaths, Ghermay said in a telephone call to a migrant smuggler from Sudan, adding that they didn't follow his instructions and carelessly caused the boat to capsize. He insisted that he had a clear conscience. "If I followed the rules and they died anyway, then it's fate," Ghermay said.

The man from Sudan agreed: "There is no appeal against God's judgment."


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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richard.mullens 09/26/2016
1. Who is really responsible for people smuggling ?
Our politicians are responsible for the scourge of people smuggling because they incentivise people to do it. They have also assisted by creating the conditions that make living in places (such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen) a nightmare, whether by bombing these places themselves or by selling arms to those that do so. The problem will continue until those responsible are ejected from office and replaced by those who are prepared to tell the truth about what is going on.
Vxx 09/26/2016
2. Dealing with smuggling.
The 1st is to change the asylum laws making them much stricter. Next is the ability to see what is occurring either by drones or geosynchronous satellites. That means any boat leaving will be intercepted. Europe is financing a host of criminal & terrorist organizations. 2nd NGO's that are not increasing the economies of African Countries need to pack up and leave. Creation of money making opportunities and introduction of Birth control to aid in the increase in employment. That lessens the desire to come to Europe, when money can be made at home. It also makes it easier to repatriate African citizens to their home countries. 3rd heavy presence of naval and Coast Guard assets. Invite this to other countries as an excellent training course. China is interested in trade with African Countries and is building a navy. Experience would be helpful. Smugglers are a danger to all. Smuggle people ,smuggle explosives and weapons,creating a new criminal corporation that is world wide. It has to be stopped.
westly 09/27/2016
There is only one way to stop people smuggling, and that is to tow the boats back to where they came from, Europe has to do the same as Australia does where boat people are concerned, nothing ells will work
monkeymimi50 09/30/2016
4. Immigration crisis
The Europeans want to have their cake and eat it. Their heads being stuffed far up America's backside, they helped the US create situations in other parts of the world like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia etc etc the list goes on. When the axis of Evil (US, UK and France) killed Ghaddafi, the rest of Europe kept quiet, knowing full well the removal of Ghaddafi will open the floodgates because Ghaddafi used to threaten to turn Europe black. The axis of evil basically kicked the hornet's nest. Now Europe is crying over spilled milk. What good is it investigating petty criminals? It will not solve the problem. Besides, the human trafficking business is just like the narcotics business, the kingpins are not the drug pushers you meet on the streets. They are well connected, having the backing of governments, institutions and NGOs. They are part of the destabilization team working to destroy the nations where most migrants come from. Basically, it is big business and big agenda. Therefore your article is very basic, fit for 5 year olds and for your public consumption. You can fool your people, but not us, people who are at the receiving end of the axis of evil.
nobodiest 10/11/2016
5. people smuglers
there are 490000 migrants who are very greatful with them and surely they are considered successful businessmen and examples of selfmade heroes to be followed by their societies, obviously when you grow in Africa you have a very different perspective. Why dont they stop risking themselves after getting such a large amount of money? First of all the money have been divided with the authorities, police, judges etc and they know that it is a mine with infinite reserves...that's only the beginning.
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