Human trafficking from Syria to Europe – Rob El Husseini

For Syrians desperate to leave their war-torn country and reach Europe, a simple WhatsApp message is all it takes to start a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Twelve years after the civil war broke out when President Bashar al-Assad crushed peaceful democratic protests, Syrians are still trying to flee a conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people, driven millions from their homes and attracted foreign powers and jihadists from all over the world.

At least 141 Syrians were on board a boat carrying Libyan migrants that sank off the coast of Greece in June. Only a hundred of the approximately 750 passengers survived.

AFP interviewed smugglers and Syrian migrants about their journey to Libya, where migrants arrive and stay in appalling conditions before heading to the central Mediterranean, the deadliest migration route in the world. All requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

One group per month
“We all negotiate over the phone,” a smuggler from the southern Syrian province of Daraa tells us. “We ask them for a copy of their passport and tell them where to put the money. We don’t need to see anyone in person,” he says on WhatsApp.

Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising, returned to regime control in 2018. Since then, activists say, she has been plagued by deaths, clashes and horrendous living conditions that fuel the exodus.

“In the first year, we sent only one group of migrants. Today we send a group to Libya every month,” the smuggler continues. “People are selling their houses and leaving.”

In the Libyan chaos
Libya plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the same year the war in Syria began. Now the North African country is divided between a government recognized by the United Nations and backed by Turkey in the west and another government in the east backed by Khalifa Haftar with ties to Damascus.

Those who want to leave Syria deposit money – over $6,000 per person – to a third party, often to an exchange office that takes a fee.

The smuggler claims he is paid as soon as the migrants arrive in Italy, but declined to say how much he earns. The boat trip is organized by his partner in Eastern Libya.

A travel agent in Daraa told an AFP reporter who introduced himself as a migrant that the package cost $6,500. In a WhatsApp message, the agent explains that the amount includes a plane ticket, an entry document for eastern Libya, an airport pick-up, transport, accommodation, a boat trip to Italy, and a life jacket.

Migrants are being accommodated “in a hotel or furnished apartment,” the travel agency adds, but Syrians say such promises are rarely kept. They talk about overcrowded and unsanitary warehouses where armed guards abuse and extort migrants.

Omar, 23, from Daraa province, asked for an $8,000 loan to be transported to Libya and then to Italy, saying he desperately wants to leave “a country with no future.”

He is now in Germany and says he spent two weeks locked up in a hangar off the coast in eastern Libya with about 200 other people.

“We were insulted, shouted at, humiliated and beaten,” she recalls. The guards fed them a meager meal of rice, bread and cheese.

On the day of departure, “about twenty armed men forced us to flee” from the hangar towards the sea. “They beat us with rifle butts,” he adds. By the time we got to shore, I was exhausted. I couldn’t believe I did it.”

Winding Journeys
Potential migrants have also found a ruse to enter western Libya via Turkey. In northern Syria, controlled by pro-Turkish rebel groups, a man who recruits militants claims to have smuggled migrants to Libya, posing as pro-Turkish mercenaries.

“Every six months we use a rotation of fighters to send people with them,” the recruiter told AFP. These are Syrians from the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, partly controlled by the opposition, “first of all, people who live in squalid camps for displaced persons,” he emphasizes.

Syrian migrants registered as fighters are entitled to a salary paid by the Turks, equal to about $2,500: almost half of this amount is pocketed by the armed group, the rest is taken by a recruiter, and the migrants enjoy a free ride, the man explains.

Migrants must first go to the border camps of pro-Ankara militants, and then go through Turkey and fly to the Libyan capital Tripoli.

They spend two weeks in Syrian militias’ camps in western Libya and then meet smugglers who ask for about $2,000 for a boat trip to Italy.

The path from areas controlled by the Syrian regime to Libya may be more tortuous. The AFP agency was able to see the group ticket of about twenty Syrian migrants who reached Lebanon by land, then flew from Beirut to the Gulf state, then to Egypt, and finally landed in Benghazi in eastern Libya.

Direct flights operated by the Syrian private airline Cham Wings also connect Damascus with Benghazi. In 2021, Cham Wings was blacklisted by the European Union for alleged involvement in the transport of illegal migrants to Belarus. Osama Satea, a spokesman, said Cham Wings only transports travelers with valid entry documents to Libya, highlighting the presence of a sizable Syrian diaspora in the country.

Do not do that
Syrians need permission from local authorities to enter Benghazi, but a smuggler from Deraa says that this is not a problem: “In Libya, as in Syria, paid officials can decide everything.” “We have a person in the security apparatus who immediately receives permits,” he assures.

Migrants say they were escorted from Benghazi airport by an accomplice of the smugglers, sometimes a security guard.

The letter of authorization seen by AFP, containing a list of eighty Syrians, had the logo of Marshal Haftar’s forces.

Once in Libya, Syrians can wait weeks or months to get through the most difficult part of the journey.

According to the International Organization for Migration, the central Mediterranean is the most dangerous migration route in the world, with more than 20,000 people killed since 2014, and more than 1,800 migrants of various nationalities have died this year alone.

Among the survivors of a boat that sank off the coast of Greece in June is a 23-year-old Syrian from Kobani, a Kurdish city in northern Syria. He paid over six thousand dollars for a trip that almost cost him his life.

“We were horrified,” she says. Six people died in a desperate struggle for food and water, and “on the fifth day we began to drink sea water.”

“I knew I was taking risks, but I didn’t expect it. I wanted to leave the war behind, live my life and help my family,” she says from Europe. “I was promised decent accommodation and a safe fishing boat, but I got nothing.”

Source link

Leave a Comment