August 2020, in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 miles north of Zuwara. A small, absurdly crowded boat is approached by a Libyan speedboat, with armed men on board. As they see them approach, the refugees are aware of their fate: “They are policemen. They will capture us.” Then, the worst happens: the mysterious men shoot at the terrified people and the fuel tanks. At least 40 dead, many left with burns. It has been called “the Mid-August Massacre.”
It is not the first time that unidentified Libyan law enforcement officers have opened fire on fleeing migrants, but this episode has had a significant impact on the market competition between the various people smugglers on the coast. This is because the boat attacked seems to have belonged to the “Zuwara boss,” the man who in recent months had acquired a position of undisputed dominance over the competition.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the same boss spread a message among the migrants, saying that he was dismayed by the incident and would stop all his boats indefinitely, as armed attacks could happen again and he cares about safety. Is he an ethical smuggler? “No,” the refugees say, “there are no good smugglers. This is just marketing.”
Marketing is fundamental in the business of criminal organizations. Criminals know this all over the world, from Casal de Principe to Ciudad Juarez. The business success of the Zuwara boss came from the successful image he put up and from one statistic: six successful trips out of six.
Musa (not his real name), now in northern Europe, tells us the story of the months spent in the houses of the Zuwara people smuggler. Most of all, he remembers the darkness. “We couldn’t turn on the lights or speak loudly. We lived crammed together, as many as 200 of us, there was one bathroom, the food was little and some days did not arrive at all. We waited.”
A treatment not unlike what people are suffering in Libyan camps like the dreaded Triq al Sikka (funded by Italy), where many refugees came from.
“Did you feel like you were clients?” I ask him. Musa shakes his head, with a bitter smile. With his UNHCR ID number in his pocket, he had waited to be transferred out for three years, on the floors of several Libyan camps. But it never happened. So, he decided to pay a ransom to the Libyan guards and entrust himself to the smugglers. “I was a prisoner, for all intents and purposes,” he explains, “and the most terrible thing is that I had decided to become that.”
The difference between the camps and the smugglers is hope. The boss knows this well, and in order to keep it alive, he uses the “lottery” system. This happens on certain evenings: he comes into the darkness of one of his houses and brings up tickets for a draw. These tickets are the receipts of the bank transfers of $1,500 that have arrived in his bank account.
It is a dramatic moment. Those whose names are drawn don’t celebrate—they quickly say goodbye to their friends, aware of the possibility they’ll never see them again, and they are transferred to a place with no Internet connection, from where it’s impossible to consult any weather report. They leave in the dark, in every sense of the word.
“Is it possible to back out at the last moment?” There are many tales of smugglers who are loading migrants onto inflatable boats using force. In Zuwara, this is not the case, Musa tells me. Once, a friend of a refugee managed to warn him that a storm was coming. The young man refused to get on board, and convinced everyone else to stay on the shore.
The boss got angry, but he didn’t force anyone. However, the next day he took the boat away and let them know that they had missed their chance. It was months before he showed up at that house again. He also threatened to “end the contract right there,” keeping the $1,500 they had paid for room and board. Then, somehow, the situation was resolved.
This profitable enterprise expanded in the first months of summer 2020, buoyed up by its successes. It got into a large business: airliners from Bangladesh and Pakistan unloading hundreds of migrants in Libya who had bought a package deal from criminal organizations including flight + Libyan visa + boat to Italy (one can only wonder if the Libyan government might be involved when it comes to the issuance of visas). The package costs €10,000. It includes priority boarding in Zuwara, without the lottery.
At this time, this is the only active migratory flow that passes through Libya. In 2019, the war abruptly interrupted the arrivals of African migrants. The thriving enterprise in Zuwara has also opened a branch that sells whole boats, usually inflatable ones. The refugees who buy them can decide how many people to bring on board. But the boss is keen to exclude these trips from the statistics, because they are do-it-yourself crossings, without his planning and assistance. And yet, some of them are successful anyway.
“What do you mean by assistance?” we ask. During the crossing, Musa tells us, the boss is in constant contact with the boat’s Thuraya satellite phone. His employees transmit continuous news bulletins to the refugees still ashore: “They arrived in the Libyan SAR, they are maintaining the speed of 7 knots…” They are keen to flaunt skills they don’t really have.
“And what about the NGOs?” The Zuwara boss ignores them. His boats are able to make the crossing on their own. But it happens too many times that in order to take on more people, the boss doesn’t load enough water on board. What matters to him is the result of the crossing, and if someone dies of thirst instead of drowning, that’s fine with him. The photos and videos of exhausted and dehydrated migrants who landed on European territory are the best publicity.
And there is no lack of copycats—such as “the man from Khoms.” The success of Zuwara is taking traffic away from the other ports, especially that of Khoms, which already has problems. In spite of the war and the stream of evacuations by the UNHCR thinning down to zero, the departures from Khoms are already at a minimum, because the inflatable boats leaving from there tend to sink a few miles off the coast.
“The man from Khoms” is one of the many smugglers in the area. He’s trying to solve the crisis by lowering prices. But it isn’t working, because in the meantime, one of his inflatables remained stuck for five days at sea just off Khoms and a four-year-old girl died of thirst. So, he is resorting to misleading advertising.
Solomon (not his real name) spent a few weeks as a client of “the man from Khoms.” Today, he is in Europe, but no thanks to the latter. He remembers the triumphant announcements of the smuggler: “The dinghy we sent yesterday is now in Malta. They made it!” Then, everyone applauds. There is no envy among the refugees—the success of one shows that there is hope for all. A few days later, another raft leaves, and a new announcement: “I’m in Malta!”—as the smugglers read off grateful SMSes like TripAdvisor feedback.
As a result, business recovers a bit, the refugees regain hope, prices go up. But all of this lasts very little—because it’s not true. The two rafts never arrived in Malta, and the SMSes are fake. The deception is discovered when some of the passengers return, with signs of torture on their bodies and down $400, which they paid to the guards of the Khoms detention camp (financed by Italy) to secure their release.
The rafts also return, because the so-called Libyan coast guard promptly sells them back to the man from Khoms. The most desperate people leave once again with the same raft as the first time. Solomon went to Zuwara instead.
There is a new competitor to the Zuwara boss: a police officer. The coastguard, police and Libyan militia have always been involved in the crossing business from Libya to the European coasts. On Wednesday, Bija, an officer of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and a well-known human trafficker, was arrested by the Rada Special Forces, a militia which itself stands accused of enslaving migrants captured at sea.
Thus, no one was too surprised when, at the beginning of the summer, a police officer from Zara started his own business venture. He was charging the same prices as the Zuwara boss—but his rafts were not properly inflated and dangerous. If there was a TripAdvisor for people smugglers, they would get zero stars. Via WhatsApp, the refugees began circulating messages to avoid him. Business was bad. Then, suddenly, the Mid-August Massacre took place: with the five mysterious armed men, the gunfire, the dead and the burned. And the Zuwara boss who stopped his crossings, the fear and the uncertainty.
Like in every business run by criminal organizations, the dominant position is conquered with the gun—with fear. Whether or not it was actually the Zara policeman who organized the attack, we may never know. But fear-based marketing certainly works. The message was received: in order to get out of Libya, you need to turn to those who work in Libyan law enforcement.
“How to stop the criminal business of the smugglers?” According to Musa, migrants get on rubber dinghies because the UN has abandoned them in Libya. Safe and legal humanitarian corridors can instantly wipe out the illegal trafficking that is causing thousands of deaths a year and enriching criminals on two sides: those illegal, with the bribes paid by the traffickers to the Libyan coastguards, and those legalized by EU funding.
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