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Short Stories by John Oakes

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‘IT IS TIME TO SELL THE CHILDREN’ – SOME REFLECTIONS ON PEOPLE TRAFFICKING IN LIBYA – UPDATED 9TH JUNE 2016

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When drought hits the people of Northern Niger they often say ‘it is time to sell the children’. Sometimes they do just that. It is little wonder that so many people of the Sahel now set out on the long and dangerous journey to Europe where the streets seem to be paved with gold. Many of them travel the old trans-Saharan slave trafficking routes through Libya. There are few people writing about Libyan people trafficking with real experience of living there. Without that experience it is difficult for observers to understand the great distances and physical hazards migrants must overcome to reach the Mediterranean shore and embark on the hazardous sea crossing. Libya is a very large country much of which is inhospitable. I lived and worked there for more than eight years and drove my less than reliable British motor car over its roads. It was in the middle of the last century admittedly. Libya was just then emerging from being one of the poorest countries in the world into oil rich nationhood and Gaddafi was still training in the Royal Libyan Military Academy. Tribes still migrated with their flocks and telephone communication was sparse and intermittent. King Idris was still nominally in charge but he was a reluctant monarch who attempted to abdicate at least twice whilst I was there. I have not driven but have flown over some of the other countries the migrants traverse such as Chad and Niger. From the air the Libyan Desert and the Sahara look forbidding enough but the view through an aircraft widow is a privileged one and not shared by an impoverished migrant riding the roads and tracks in an overloaded Toyota half truck. We have no real data about the number who die on the land leg of their journey but I suspect there are many. The simplest of the long road trips I made regularly was from Tripoli to Tobruk along the old military road constructed by the Italians when they occupied Libya. They built rest stations along the way but in my day these had been abandoned. The last remnant of the Italian colonial way stations was Mamma Rosa’s bar at Ben Juade. Mamma Rosa’s daughter had acquired somewhat overrated popularity born of long periods of life without women amongst those who drove supplies to the oilrigs deep in the hinterland. At Mamma Rosa’s one could purchase a cold drink, admire her daughter and watch camels replenish their capacious water storage organs at the drinking troughs. The distance by road from Tripoli to Tobruk via Misrata, Sirte, Ajdabia, Benghazi and Derna is approximately 1,460 kilometres and the journey should take around 19 hours if you drive without stopping at Libya speeds. Few would attempt to do so, even today. The road was not in good repair in the middle years of the last century when I travelling around Libya. On one notable occasion I was met and summarily forced off the road a few kilometres west of Ajdabia by a motor convoy conveying King Idris from Tripoli to Tobruk. The poor king, who was not in robust health, was so shaken up by the numerous potholes in the road that he caused them to be repaired by a Greek construction company. The Greeks succeeded in replacing the potholes with lumps which were almost as destructive. Land travel in Libya is hazardous for a number of reasons. Libyan drivers are rather reckless and are not keen on being overtaken. Wrecked cars are not uncommon, even on long strait roads. Also it gets very hot indeed during the day in the summer but the temperature dips steeply at night. As I write the temperature in Ajdabia is 40C and is forecast to drop to 23C tonight. High winds can make life very difficult. I drove through a gale whilst near Marsa Brega when the sand blast raised by the wind was so severe it stripped paint off the front of my car and polished its sump to a high shine. Water is not readily available and dehydration can be lethal. Vehicles which overheat are not recommended. A real, but fortunately infrequent, hazard is the hot wind which rolls up from the deep south. These winds are known as Khamseens in Egypt. In Libya they are called Ghiblis and they are formidable and can kill. The sight of a Ghibli as it approached me over the Red Plane west of Benghazi frightened me a great deal. These awful sandstorms suffocate one in dust. There is only one thing to do and that is to stop and sit it out in the hope that one does not dehydrate and that the motor engine will not have seized up with sand when the storm has passed. They can last up to four days and they are hot. Nowadays enterprising militias set up roadblocks to augment their fighting funds and it is fatal for Christian migrants to meet Islamic State fanatics who kill them brutally. Their default method is beheading. Islamic Sate is in control of the city of Sirte on the Tripoli to Benghazi road. I knew the city of Ajdabia well enough. I would stop there on my regular journeys from Benghazi to the developing oil ports on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte. I often ate a late breakfast in one of its cafes of a boiled egg and a cup of very strong and very sweet coffee, known in Libya as ‘Ghid Ghid’. So strong and addictive is ‘Ghid Ghid’ that it may account for the lack of harmony which besets Libya today! It is an interesting town. It has strategic value today because it is here that members of two major Libyan tribes, Al Magharba and Al Zuweya, live in a wary coexistence. The Magharba now exercises a great deal of influence over the oil terminals on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte and the Zuweya tribe’s homeland includes a major section of Libya’s oilfields. It is at Ajdabia that the coastal road from Tripoli now branches in three directions, one branch goes north east across the white and red plains to Benghazi, a second strikes out eastwards across the southern foothills of the Jebel Akhdar, roughly following the old Trig al Abd camel track to Tobruk, and a third takes the hazardous route going SSE in the direction of Kufra and, even further south, to the Jebal Uweinat. This is one of the main roads for people trafficking. The distances are enormous. For example the Jebal Uweinat is around 1,200 kilometres from Ajdabia. Ajdabia is now one of the northern hubs on the people trafficking routs from East Africa and the Horn of Africa via Khartoum and Dongola in the Sudan and Kufra in Libya’s Deep South. From Ajdabia traffickers often take their human cargo westwards to Tripoli to find the fragile and unstable boats in which they are packed to hazard the Mediterranean crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily and mainland Italy. Kufra is an oasis town which is now Libya’s the south eastern hub for people trafficking. The route through Kufra to Ajdabia is favoured by refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. Data from the International Organization for Migration shows that these two countries are large contributors to the tide of human migration into Southern Europe. Many of the young migrants from Eritrea appear to be escaping military conscription and Somalia has long been a failed state, a veritable model of anarchy. Recently a number of refugees from Syria have been using this route. They are escaping the Syrian misery and finding their way to Turkey from whence they fly to Khartoum and travel thence by land to Kufra. That would be complicated enough but they still have to get to the Mediterranean coast from Kufra and then make the parlous crossing to a European shore. It is a demonstration of the lengths human beings will go to find a future for themselves and their progeny. It is also a demonstration of the firestorm of warfare, religious intolerance, corruption, grinding poverty and racial hatred which blights a great swathe of the Middle East and Africa. For those who make it as far as Kufra the journey to Europe would be hard enough but Libya is a failed state. Civil society is near nonexistent and corruption is rampant. The economy is collapsing as Libyans fight each other, the oil revenue diminishes and trade dries up. The people traffickers are growing ever more callous and brazen. Human trafficking from Libya across the Mediterranean was a $170 million business last year. Some Sudanese traffickers are taking their clients on a new route westward from Dongola and Khartoum to Quatrun and Sebha in the Libya’s Fezzan. Here the migrants from East Africa join those from the Sahel and West Africa who trek eastwards via Bamako in Mali and Naimy, Agadez and Dirku in Niger. This is the route followed by drug smugglers carrying their lethal mind altering chemicals shipped into corrupt West African states by the South American drug cartels. A substantial number of the ‘western’ migrants originate in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. Once in Quatrun the migrants face a 1057 kilometre road trip to Tripoli before they embark on the lethal sea crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily or mainland Italy. Libya is shouldering the blame for the tide of economic migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that unscrupulous people traffickers are making money out of human misery and that Libya is disintegrating into chaos. The migrants are following tracks made by their ancestors who were sold into slavery by unscrupulous Sultans in Darfur, Wadai and Kano and trafficked across the Sahara. Even today they may see the skeletons of those who were left to die for the desert is slow to recycle bones. It is time to question the resounding silence of the Africa Heads of States from whose lands the tides of migrants have their origin. John Oakes 25th June 2015

BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

Update 30th June 2015

From the Libya Herald 28th June 2015:

The EU states also have to contend with the attractive business and economic model of people smuggling. An illegal migrant worker is charged between a low of US$ 1,000 and US$ 3,000 per crossing with some boats carrying up to 700 people. The average Libyan border guard or policeman gets paid US$ 1,000 /month. The lure of people smuggling is very strong and a weak Libyan state, barring a return to dictatorship, will struggle to counter this lure for a few years to come.

Update 9th July 2015

This from Amnesty International can not be ignored:

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/05/libya-horrific-abuse-driving-migrants-to-risk-lives-in-mediterranean-crossings/

Update 19th September 2015

A graphic piece about the perils of the land leg of the trans-Saharan migrant journey:

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article24785137.html

Update 9th June 2016

This is from the Libya Herald and is dated 7th June 2016. It represents the Libyan view about people trafficking:
London, 7 June 2016:

Libya’s Government of National Accord Prime Minister-elect and head of its Presidency Council, Faiez Serraj, has sunk EU policy on illegal migration by refusing to accept migrants picked up at sea back onto Libyan territory.

The news comes as the Libyan Red Crescent updated the number of migrant dead bodies washing up on the Zuwara coast over the last few days to 133.

Speaking over the weekend to a number of media outlets, Serraj rejected a Turkey-style deal with the EU to hold onto illegal migrants and possible refugees in ‘’reception centres’’ in Libya. Serraj said Libya and Turkey were different. Libya would not accept that the EU send them back to Libya to settle.

Serraj criticized the EU saying that bombing boats in the sea would not be the solution to illegal migration. He said that the solution must be found in the migrants’ countries of origin. He insisted that Libya would not allow migrants to use Libya as a transit country, however.

He said that the EU must send illegal migrants back to their home countries, adding that on this issue Libya and the EU were in disagreement.

Backing his Prime Minister-elect, Libya’s GNA Foreign Minister-elect, Mohamed Siala confirmed the position taken on the issue by Serraj. Siala reiterated that Libya would not be accepting back migrants that sailed from Libya.

Siala said that illegal migrants should be returned to their country of origin and not to the country of transit. He said that these had entered Libya illegally. Siala said that if a large number of illegal migrants accumulated in Libya with its relatively small population of over 6 million, they would have a great (negative) effect on Libya’s demographic make-up.

The highly experienced Siala, who had held a number of high governmental positions in the previous Qaddafi regime, including Deputy Foreign Minister, pointed out the existence of a Libyan-Italian agreement which stipulates that any illegal migrants that travel to Libya illegally, without documents or visas, cannot be returned to Libya.

He stressed that this agreement would be implemented.

These latest pronouncements by the UN-backed GNA through its Prime Minister-elect and Foreign Minister-elect will be a big blow to the EU. It completely scuppers EU anti-illegal migration policy in the central Mediterranean based upon installing a pro-EU Libyan government in Tripoli which was expected to agree to a deal on the lines of that struck with Turkey.

The EU had hoped that Libya would either retain most illegal migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or accept those rescued at sea into ‘’reception centres’’ on Libyan soil.

Meanwhile, international aid agencies such as MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been critical of EU policy intentions to return migrants to Libya.

MSF’s UK Executive Director, Vicky Hawkins, told Libya Herald today that “European governments should not be sending people back to Libya”.

“Last year MSF operated three rescue boats in the Mediterranean. 92% of our patients fleeing Libya by boat reported having directly experienced violence in the country, while 100% witnessed extreme violence against refugees and migrants including beatings, murders and sexual violence. No wonder people are trying to flee”.

“All European governments must uphold their legal and moral responsibilities and urgently increase the proper management of refugee claims across Europe. This is the only solution for this crisis that will not lead to an unacceptable level of suffering”, she concluded.

Equally, HRW said that the EU should do less prevention and more search and rescue at sea. It said that the EU should provide safe and legal routes for refugees. It said that ‘’trapping people in detention centres in Libya would expose them to terrible harm”.
It added that ‘‘partnering with Libya on migration would be disastrous. While smugglers bear direct responsibility for sending boats from Libya, European governments share moral and political responsibility’’.

It is worth pointing out to readers that while the issue of illegal migration is very prominent in EU political and media debates, it figures very low on the minds of Libyans and on the internal Libyan political agenda.

Libya is currently suffering a political and economic crises reflected in high foreign exchange rates, high prices and inflation, cash-shortages at banks, late salary payments and high rates of militia-related crime and kidnapping.

As most illegal migrants are loaded onto their boats away from prying eyes, usually after midnight, Libyans get to see very little of the phenomenon at home.

LIBYA’S POROUS SOUTHERN BORDERS AND THE ILLICIT TRADE IN WEAPONS, DRUGS AND PEOPLE (UPDATED 20th FEBRUARY MARCH 2017)

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Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid, a sometime senior member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is now commander of border security in the southern part of the country. He is the brother of Abou Yahya al-Libi, Bin Laden’s second in command, who was killed in Pakistan in early June by an American drone. Quaid is believed to have received 170 million dinars ($120 million) and a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles from Qatar, presumably to carry out his duties. This is an interesting appointment in the light the relationship between Libya and the US following the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi on 11th September this year. The border is of interest to the USA and the al Qaida franchises operating in the region.

Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid is now responsible for Libya’s volatile south which borders Algeria, Niger, Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan. Smuggling routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast run through the Libyan oasis cities of Murzuq, its neighbouring city Sabha, and Kufra to the east.

A massive illicit trade in weapons, petrol and food goods moves south across porous desert borders in return for drugs, alcohol and people moving north.  On 16th September the Libya Herald reported that Algerian police had intercepted a group of gun runners from Libya. They were attempting to smuggle 8 machine guns, 24 automatic rifles and 14,000 rounds of ammunition stolen from Libyan military arms dumps.

The cities are also staging posts for migrants who mainly come from Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.  Some choose Libya as a final work destination but most hope to embark on the final journey north to the coast and across the Mediterranean to Europe.

A recent eyewitness report from Sabah gives us a glimpse of the modern trans-Saharan migrant route; “More than 1,300 illegal immigrants are detained here, some 100 kilometres outside the city of Sabha, along the road between the sand dunes to the south and the border with Niger. They have no shelter, not even makeshift tents, forced to sleep on the sandy, pebble-studded ground. Only the lucky few among them have a blanket to protect them from the gusts of scorching wind. The others curl up so they can shield their faces in their keffiyehs or T-shirts. It is early evening, and the temperature in this southern Libyan desert known for its scorpions and vipers is 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit)”.  (Lucy Matieu in Le Temps dated 2012-07-06 22)

The most dangerous leg of the migrant’s journey is by boat across the Mediterranean from Libya. Malta is a preferred entry point to Europe for these latterday boat people. According to FRONTEX WATCH MALTA,  known Illegal migrant landings in 2012 (up to 16th August) were 1621, of which 1162 were male, 412 female,25 were children, 8 were babies. There were 13 deaths. Malta covers just over 316 km2 in land area. It is one of the world’s smallest states and also one of the most densely populated. (1036.8/km2)

The Times of Malta dated 27th May 2012 carried this report; “A group of 52 migrants arrived at Xrobb l-Ghagin this afternoon, raising the number of arrivals today to 188. The latest arrivals include thee women. They arrived on a dinghy which managed to reach the shore. This morning, a group of 136 illegal immigrants was brought to Malta on a patrol boat. The 86 men, 43 women and 7 children were picked up from a drifting dinghy some 72 miles south of Malta after their boat was deemed to be in distress. Among the migrants was a new-born, while another baby was born as a patrol boat was bringing the migrants to Malta.”

It is worth making one final point. A recent report by Al Jazeera contained this disturbing remark; “The European Union and United States should be concerned, warned Ibrahim Ali Abu Sharia, a Sabha University professor. There is a massive illegal trade – including slaves. I saw a Sabha farmer sell 20 Somali women recently. You can buy one African man for 500 Libyan Dinar [$394].” (Rebecca Murray Al Jazeera 22nd July 2102).

We learn little from history. The British explorer G.F. Lyon made these observations about trans-Saharan salve trafficking whilst in Muzurq in the early 19th Century. “Many of the [slave] children were carried [on camels] in leather bags, which the Tibboo [Tebu] make use of to keep their corn in; and in one instance I saw a nest of children on one side of a camel, and its young one in a bag, hanging on the other………. Five Wajunga men, fierce, well made, handsome people, about 25 years of age, were linked together. The right hand is fastened to the neck, round which is an iron collar, having two rings in the back; through this the heavy chain is passed and locked at each end on the unhappy slaves. The owner sleeps with this chain tied to his wrist, when in fear of their escaping. I was informed by their masters, that these men had been so confined during three months.”

Updated 7th October 2012

On Saturday 6th October a meeting in Malta of the ‘5+5 Group’ which comprises Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauretania, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta concluded with an agreement to set up a humanitarian task-force to combat illegal immigration across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb states to Europe. (Libya Herald and Times of Malta)

Update 11th October 2012

The following is part of a new report issued by the ‘International Federation for Human Rights, Migreurop’ and ‘Justice without borders for migrants (JWBM)’, based on an investigation in Libya in June 2012, during which the delegation interviewed hundreds of migrants held in 8 detention centres in Tripoli, Benghazi and the Nafusa Mountain region.

……………Yet in today’s Libya, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees find themselves hounded by groups of former rebels (Qatibas), acting outside any legal framework in a context of deep-rooted racism, who have assigned themselves the task of “ridding the country of migrants who bring crime and disease”. Migrants are arrested at checkpoints and in their homes and taken to improvised detention centres, run by Katibas, where they are held for indefinite periods in airless and insalubrious cells, suffering physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the guards. They have no idea whether and when they may regain their freedom………..

……….as the situation in Libya stabilises, the country will once again rely on migrant workers to rebuild and develop its economy. Foreign companies, many of them European, will resume their investments in Libya and the country will become a hub of intra-African migration. The EU must contribute to this mobility with ambition and responsibility, including by developing a more flexible visa policy and by not forcing Libya to readmit non-nationals…………

Read the full letter in Libya Herald http://www.libyaherald.com/?p=15892

Update 25th October 2012

More migrants rescued…………read http://www.libyaherald.com/2012/10/24/16807/

and more arms smuggled……readhttp://www.libyaherald.com/2012/10/24/smuggled-libyan-arms-seized-in-mersa-matruh/

Update 5th November 2012.

More migrants rescued – some dead:

http://www.libyaherald.com/2012/11/05/ten-europe-bound-migrants-perish-off-libyan-coast/

Update 18th December 2012
The Libyan Herald carried this report datelined 17th December 2012. The appointment of a military governor and the declaration of a military zone in the south is a hopeful sign.

“Tripoli, 17 December: The General National Congress (GNC) declared the south a closed military zone on Sunday evening and announced that it would temporarily close the borders with Niger, Chad, Sudan and Algeria, state news agency LANA reported.

GNC members passed the exceptional legislation with a majority of 136, designating the areas around Ghadamis, Ghat, Awbari, Al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra as closed zones of military operations.

Members also voted to close Libya’s southern borders, but said that they would reopen them at an undesignated time in coordination with their neighbouring states.

According to the legislation, the Ministry of Defence must appoint a military governor for the south, who will be given full powers to arrest those currently wanted for crimes in the area.”
Also read this:
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/12/20121216201619436647.html

Update 28th December 2912
This is an excellent survey in the Libya Herald:
http://www.libyaherald.com/2012/12/23/libyas-south-migrants-journeys/

Updated 3rd February 2013

The illegal immigrant centre in Benghazi attacked. Some details of the treatment of inmates who test HIV positive;
http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/02/03/benghazi-detention-centre-attacked/

Update 24th June 2013

There has been some talk of floods of migrants moving across Libya’s Sothern borders attempting to reach the Mediterranean coast and eventually Europe. The Libyan PM and a group of ministers have returned from Kufra in the south east and Ghat in the south west. They argue that there is a trickle of migrants – tens not thousands -and they have put measures in place to stem the flow.

http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/06/23/illegal-emigrant-figures-exaggerated-zeidan/

However, it seems that some migrants are getting through and that there are still people traffickers operating in Kufra:
http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article46800

Update 9th July 2013

It seems that there are still desperate people making the hazardous crossing from Libya to Malta and Italy. Some who die on route are thrown overboard!
http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/07/09/a-birth-and-three-deaths-on-stranded-migrant-dinghy/

Update 13th July 2013

The statement made by the Libyan Prime Minister that there were but 10s not 1,000s of migrants crossing into Libya seems to be refuted by this report about Malta’s attempt to fly boat people back to Libya.

http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/07/12/malta-bins-plans-to-fly-arriving-migrants-straight-back-to-libya/

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20130710/local/202-more-migrants-heading-for-malta.477411

http://www.unhcr.org/51d6b8a56.html

Update 8th August 2013

More illegal migrants are drowned as the tragedy of people trafficking across the Mediterranean from Libya continues:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/08/20138813638173281.html

Update 27th August 2013
This report that foreign troops have crossed Libya’s southern border somewhere may prove interesting;

tp://www.libyaherald.com/2013/08/27/no-foreign-troops-traversing-libyan-borders-zeidan/

Update 30 November 2013

This report and video from Al Jazeera brings the story up to date dramatically:
http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2013/11/dangerous-waters-20131118121229693854.html

Updated 2nd February 2014

Essential reading…..
http://www.usip.org/publications/illicit-trafficking-and-libya-s-transition-profits-and-losses

Update 21st March 2014

The dreadful sea journey from Libya to Malta and Italy is still taking its toll;

http://www.aawsat.net/2014/03/article55330299

Update 20th February 2017

It is clear from this piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that people trafficking is brutal and cruel.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/20/migrant-slave-trade-libya-europe

 

 

 

John Oakes