More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean during the refugee crisis of 2015, with about 850,000 landing in Greece and the remainder in Italy. By March 2016 the EU had signed an agreement with Turkey: Ankara would do its best to ensure that the refugees (mostly Syrian) pushing up into Turkey would remain there, while the EU would send refugees arriving in Greece (mostly but not all Syrian) back to Turkey. The deal was based on the assumption that Turkey was a ‘safe country’, and criticised on two counts: first, refugee experts didn’t believe it was all that safe, and second, many felt Brussels shouldn’t be making deals with an authoritarian regime, or promising it large sums of money – roughly six billion euros – in return for co-operation. But as far as the EU was concerned, the deal was a success: in 2016, the number of migrants dropped by two thirds, with 363,000 arriving by sea, less than half of these landing in Greece. The number arriving in Italy increased, however, to roughly 180,000. Rome and Brussels reacted by seeking to negotiate a replica of the Turkish agreement with those countries south of the Mediterranean from which refugees set out: Libya, Sudan and Niger were described as Europe’s new ‘southern border’. But Sudan is much less safe for asylum seekers than Turkey, and Libya is extremely dangerous. Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 there has been no functioning state with full control of the country. The Government of National Accord (GNA), created by an agreement signed in Morocco in December 2015 and internationally recognised, has no proper army and depends on militias to ensure its survival. Sudan, meanwhile, is a failed state whose long civil wars have displaced nearly four million of its own citizens – increasingly they too are seeking asylum in Europe.
Despite all this, in February 2016 Brussels established a High-Level Dialogue on migration with Khartoum and announced a special fund of €100 million to improve the living conditions of displaced Sudanese and migrants inside Sudan and tackle the causes of migration. A Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA followed in August. Two months later the EU began training the Libyan coastguard, largely a consortium of militia forces. In 2017 Italy signed a new Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA. The agreement, which was immediately endorsed by Brussels, allowed Italy and the EU to provide financial, material and intelligence support to a Libyan coastguard force that would intercept migrants before they reached Europe. In May, Rome delivered the first consignment of speedboats.
In mid-2017 the number of migrants began to drop significantly. In 2018, fewer than 120,000 crossed the Mediterranean, the majority from Morocco to Spain; less than 20 per cent crossed from Libya to Italy. According to the UN, around two-thirds of the migrants who left from Libya were intercepted by the new coastguard; their boats were towed back. But the success of these policies comes at a human cost. In Libya and Sudan, militias were already involved in human smuggling – and highly abusive forms of human trafficking – and migrants are now at higher risk. As well as perilous sea and desert routes, they face violence from armed groups, some in the pay of Brussels and Rome. The militias have a vested interest in controlling – rather than stemming – migrant flows, adjusting them to get maximum European funding. They also depend on the ‘failed’ nature of the states in which they do business and have a stake in their disarray.
Roughly four thousand Sudanese request asylum in France every year, making them one of the country’s largest group of asylum seekers. Through our work as migration researchers we have spoken to a number of them, including Al-Nur, from North Darfur. He is 43; in the Parisian diaspora of Sudanese and other sub-Saharans, he is seen as an old man. He’d been a relatively prosperous farmer and livestock owner until 2003, when the war in Darfur began and the Janjawiid – Sudanese pro-government militias sent to ‘pacify’ the area – looted his herds and burned down his village. He left and found work as a casual labourer – making bricks, felling trees, burning charcoal, thatching roofs and drying fish. He married Hala, a woman from the Nuba Mountains, another of Sudan’s war zones, and the couple moved to a small community on the southern edge of the Sahara, where Al-Nur found work as a water carrier. In September 2016, he heard rumours that smugglers were running people north to Libya, where there were plentiful jobs for sub-Saharan migrants on the large farms, watered by ground aquifers, that Gaddafi had created across the Libyan desert.
Al-Nur paid 4000 Sudanese pounds (around £500) to be driven to Libya with Hala. No sooner was the money paid than they were locked in a compound in Malha, a small town in Darfur many hours by road from the Libyan border, with a hundred migrants from East Africa (mostly Eritrea and Somalia), West Africa (Nigeria and Senegal) and Bangladesh. Half a dozen armed and uniformed Sudanese were posted at the door. Al-Nur referred to them as ‘Arabs’: common parlance for the Janjawiid militias. When he tried to talk to them, their reply was always the same: ‘We are the government.’
The guards were indeed Janjawiid, in their most recent guise as Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In 2013 Khartoum began integrating Janjawiid militias into a new, better equipped, paramilitary body, reportedly under the direct control of President Omar al-Bashir. The current leader of the RSF is Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemmeti, a young warlord who proved less refractory than his rivals for the job. In 2016, after Sudan and the EU began their High-Level Dialogue, Khartoum deployed the RSF to intercept migrants aiming for the Libyan border: a unilateral decision that came as a surprise – and something of an embarrassment – to Brussels. Hemmeti, who appears regularly on state TV, claims to have arrested thousands of migrants ‘on behalf of Europe’. He has also threatened laxity on the Sudan/Libya border if the ‘hard work’ of his 23,000 men ‘scattered throughout the desert’ is not rewarded by the EU.
While Hemmeti claims to be Europe’s point man in Sudan, his rank and file in the RSF earn extra income trafficking the migrants they are supposed to intercept. Al-Nur’s experience confirms this. One night, around midnight, he and his fellow migrants, holed up on the Sudanese side of the frontier, were ordered into four pickups, 24 passengers in each, and covered with plastic tarpaulins. The lead vehicle and the last were equipped with mounted machine guns. The little convoy included 12 armed RSF men, all in uniform. Many migrants we’ve interviewed say they were smuggled from Sudan to Libya in RSF vehicles. Several RSF soldiers have told us that they smuggled more migrants into Libya than they intercepted. ‘Officially, our orders are to drive the migrants back to their country of origin,’ one of them said. ‘So, from time to time, we intercept migrants and transfer them back to Khartoum, to show the authorities we are doing the job … but the reality is quite different … The RSF drive migrants to Libya. Migrant smuggling is not a sin.’ If the RSF stopped people smuggling, he believed, others would take over. ‘So why not benefit from it and make some money? Fuel costs are already covered by the government.’
It took two days for Al-Nur’s party to reach the Libyan border, around 600 km from their point of departure (Al-Nur made a hole in the tarpaulin with his teeth in order to breathe more easily). Deep in the western desert the RSF handed over their passengers to Libyan traffickers in military uniform who drove pickups with Libyan flags. They told the migrants to sit in a circle with their heads lowered, Al-Nur remembered, and threatened to shoot any ‘slave’ who moved. They fired their weapons in the air.
Al-Nur and the others were then driven to Umm-el-Araneb, a small town that has grown up at a junction of desert roads. Al-Nur and Hala were separated. The men were held in shipping containers in the compound. ‘You only have a plastic bucket where you can piss. Every day people are taken out and new people come.’ Around two hundred and fifty migrants were already in the compound when Al-Nur and his companions arrived. Here, too, they were referred to as ‘slaves’. ‘We know you want to go to Europe but you’re our slaves, you have been sold to us,’ they were told. ‘You have to pay to get released.’
When Al-Nur told them that he and Hala had no money, he was told to stop ‘talking nonsense’. Their captors were distributing mobile phones to the migrants, so they could call their families and persuade them to send ransom money: the Sudanese were asked for 4000 Libyan dinars (LYD) – around £2000. The others were told: ‘You have family in Europe, we don’t accept anything but euros or dollars.’ The belief in Libya is that Eritreans, in particular, can rely on rich diasporas in Europe or the US, and they are asked for larger sums, in hard currency. The migrants were tortured with blazing pieces of plastic piping until they agreed to call their relatives; sometimes the torture continued during the call. Al-Nur showed us the scars on his legs. He had burns only on his legs because, his torturers explained, ‘You are an old man.’ Others have more extensive injuries. The torture was filmed and sent to the migrants’ relatives via social media. Al-Nur felt sure there was nothing his family could do and that a call would only cause them distress. He didn’t call anyone. After two months, the man in charge of the prison told him that if he couldn’t come up with the money he would have to work to pay off his debt. Al-Nur and Hala were sold to a farmer known for his brutal treatment of labourers. They were told they would spend ten months there before being released.
After two months they managed to escape and made their way up to the coast, about 900 kilometres away, and with the help of the Sudanese exile network Al-Nur found work in a bakery in Sabratha, west of Tripoli. One day he heard a customer asking the owner: ‘I have some people to send to Europe, who can do that?’ The owner put the man in touch with a smuggler called Abdelbasit. Al-Nur knew who Abdelbasit was – he had a reputation among the Sudanese community for helping people in search of work and came regularly to buy bread for his migrant passengers. He was also, Al-Nur discovered, a relative of Ahmed Dabashi, aka Amu (‘Uncle’), the main migrant smuggler, and militia leader, in Sabratha. Al-Nur told his boss that he too wanted to go to Europe: Libya was too dangerous, and he heard endless stories about migrants being kidnapped by traffickers who hoped to extort money from relatives abroad. At first his employer said he wanted him to stay. If he kept working as well as he had been, the man said, he could leave the following year.
He relented in July 2017 and the couple arranged their passage. They were among a hundred migrants who set off in a large wooden boat. Abdelbasit was with them in the boat, which was escorted by a smaller dinghy. After half an hour, the migrants noticed the outline of another vessel ahead. Abdelbasit set a course for the migrants to follow, boarded the smaller dinghy, and headed back to shore, telling them that if they were stopped by the Libyan coastguard they should say they were ‘Amu’s people’ and there wouldn’t be a problem. The approaching vessel was a patrol boat equipped with machine guns. (When we met, Al-Nur recognised it from a photograph included in a report by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya and captioned ‘the only patrol boat of this size operating between Tripoli and the Tunisian border’.) Half a dozen uniformed men with weapons were on deck when the vessel rammed the migrants’ boat. Two of them jumped into the boat and began firing into the air and the sea. The migrants shouted Amu’s name. ‘We don’t know Amu, we’re the coastguard!’ the gunmen replied. ‘Don’t move, or we’ll throw you into the sea.’ A rope was cast down and the migrants held on to it as their boat, along with two others captured that night, was towed back to the Libyan coast.
They disembarked in Zawiya, the main base west of Tripoli for the newly founded coastguard units. Al-Nur and Hala were detained in an unfinished four-storey building which already held several hundred prisoners. Here the guards told the migrants that if they paid LYD 2000 (£1000) each they would be put back in a dinghy for Europe. Those who couldn’t pay would be transferred to ‘Osama prison’, a detention centre run by the GNA’s Ministry of the Interior, where they could be stuck indefinitely. In Zawiya, Al-Nur and his fellow migrants were once again beaten and burned by the guards in the hope that their relatives would be persuaded to transfer money for their release and Al-Nur finally made the phone call he’d refused to make in Umm-el-Araneb.
In the end it was Hala’s brothers who sent money. After two weeks and one night in Zawiya, 110 migrants who had managed to scrabble together the ransom were put to sea again. Before they left, Al-Nur heard one of their captors making a call to a senior officer in the Libyan coastguard: ‘We have people leaving, you have to ease off today.’ ‘The trouble with him,’ he said as he ended the call, ‘is that he’s stopping every boat.’ To make sure that Al-Nur and his companions weren’t pulled back this time, the same patrol boat that had intercepted them, with the same uniformed guards, escorted them deep into international waters. The following day they were picked up by the NGO rescue ship Aquarius and taken to Sicily. (Last September, the Aquarius ceased operating after Panama gave in to Italian pressure and revoked its registration.)
Italy has been spurred to extraordinary unilateral action in Libya. As Zawiya was being beefed up as a base for the new coastguard, the Italians began negotiating directly with the smugglers and traffickers on the Libyan coast. One of their main interlocutors was Ahmed Dabashi, the Sabratha trafficker: a direct meeting was apparently brokered by local elders. Dabashi is said to have made a deal with Italy and the GNA: he would renounce smuggling and join the anti-immigration drive, in return for salaries for his militias and new equipment, including boats, channelled by Italy through the GNA. There were also rumours that he had received $6 million as a down payment from the Italian intelligence services. Whether or not that’s true, by the time Al-Nur and Hala were being processed as asylum seekers in Sicily, Dabashi’s forces were starting to work with the GNA. In late 2017 a conflict erupted in Sabratha between Dabashi’s forces and his erstwhile smuggling partners, who were joined by rival militias in the town.
Another Sudanese migrant we interviewed, who was in Dabashi’s custody at the time, remembers Dabashi’s militia coming to the embarkation points and press-ganging migrants to fight on their side in the conflict: ‘They picked us, Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, and asked us if we had experience with firearms. Skilled fighters were given a gun, and others were responsible for loading.’ Our interviewee was no good at either, so he was beaten, then given a hammer, and told to knock holes in the walls for Dabashi’s snipers to use. ‘We were exposed to crossfire and five of us were injured, and replaced by others,’ he told us. According to a report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, Italy’s plan to turn Sabratha’s militias ‘into law enforcement entities’ resulted in ‘a 19-day war in which more than forty people were killed, 350 injured and 15,000 displaced’.
When migrants arrive in Italy, their fingerprints are taken. Like most Sudanese, Al-Nur didn’t want to stay in Italy and headed to France – mostly on foot – to lodge his asylum claim. But according to the EU’s Dublin Regulation, asylum applicants must be processed in the member state where their fingerprints are taken. Some migrants burn their fingertips or disfigure them with razors and caustic chemicals to avoid this, but Al-Nur was ‘Dublined’, as migrants say, in Italy. When we met him in Paris, he was under orders from the French Ministry of the Interior to return to Italy, his first port of call. Hala died a few days after they had crossed the Mediterranean. She never told him what went on while they were kept in separate containers in Umm-el-Araneb and he still doesn’t know what happened to her. But he had seen migrant women brought to his compound and raped by the guards in front of the male detainees. The guards called these occasions ‘TV shows’.
In June, Al-Nur was put on a plane from Paris to Milan. At the airport, ‘the Italians issued some papers and left us in the street without explanation.’ He spent two nights in the railway station at Milan, took a train to the French border and walked across the Alps, travelling by night and hiding from ground patrols and helicopters, following a path he remembered taking when he first left Italy. Within a week, he was back in Paris, with a new document from the French authorities telling him to return to Italy. The Dublin Regulation is a nightmare for asylum seekers and a huge injustice to the Mediterranean member-states of the EU – Greece, Italy and Spain – which are obliged to kettle migrants in the absence of a proper policy for their dispersal throughout the Union. On 3 January Al-Nur was summoned by the French authorities and told he had been granted leave to remain. He is now waiting for an appointment with an asylum officer.