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crossing the desert
crossing the desert

During the past years Italy has signed a series of agreements on illegal immigration with Khadafi's Libya.  From the year 2000, in particular, such agreements have yielded alternating results.  Efficient measures have been adopted only after the bilateral treaty of partnership of August 30, 2008.  The first rejection of an illegal passenger ship took place on May 6, 2009.  The beginning of joint patrolling along Libyan coasts began on May 25, 2009.  Before and during these events there has been considerable spending on the Italian side but to no avail.

On the Libyan side the problem of illegal immigration has been mostly an occasion to haggle - if not downright blackmail - over political and financial favors not only from Italy but from the rest of Europe as well.  The general approach to the problem - at least on the Italian side, since the Libyan counter-part doesn't seem to have a specific cultural sensibility regarding immigration - has often neglected the "social" side of the issue, pushing for operative measures without taking a look at the evident ongoing humanitarian emergency at hand.

In other words, Italians have been busy contrasting the phenomenon on the field without understanding its essence, motives and thus without being able to create the circumstances that could have circumscribed it.

To understand all of this we must begin by finding out what pushes an individual to leave their home and family, to spend their savings, risk their lives in the desert and at sea, to face the unforeseen, to suffer isolation, exploitation, to undergo humiliation, to move across hostile countries, in a journey that has no sure duration for a dream that often turns to tragedy.

Let's take, for instance, the journey of an Eritrean illegal immigrant traveling to Italy and to Europe at the time of Khadafi's regime:

- The first contact is in Asmara (Eritrea) with the agents of the transnational criminal organizations that operate in the sector of illegal immigration.  Our traveler will have to cross the border with Sudan secretly to avoid the regime's retaliation against his family.  It will cost him from 5 to 6 hundred dollars;

- The organization moves the immigrant along regions that are not controlled by the police, mostly on camelback and at night;

- The border is crossed in the area near Kassala (Sudan) and the first stop of the immigrant will be in the local refugee camps (in Sawa).  It is a relatively short stop, as the camps are infested by spies from Eritrea and one could be spotted (once again, the immigrant's family at home is in danger):
The immigrant will then try to move to other camps (Wadi Sharifa) and then move to Khartoum (Sudan) where he can contact the telephone numbers that had been provided by the organization in Asmara.  The contacts are other agents that will help him enter Libya.  Generally, even if it is a transnational organization, the agents are all Eritrean like the immigrant.  The journey from Kassala to Khartoum is usually by bus.  The cost for reaching Libya from Sudan is approximately 7 or 8 hundred dollars.  If the immigrant has the money he will spend little time in Khartoum, otherwise he will have to find a job in the black market to pay for the trip. Usually the immigrant will contact international organizations such as the UNHCR to try to obtain the status of refugee.  It is needed to have access to aid but most importantly it prevents the immigrant from being kicked out of the country.  Actually, it is to avoid paying the police so that they don't kick him out of the country.  The immigrant will trash the refugee status before entering Libya to avoid being identified;

- Once the immigrant has paid the 7-8 hundred dollars, the organization will prepare the trip towards Libya.  The immigrant will be traveling with other individuals of other nationalities that he does not know;

- To move from Khartoum to the Libyan border the immigrant will have to ride on overcrowded off-road vehicles that carry men, women and children.  One vehicle can carry as many as 30 individuals.  Sometimes, instead of driving straight into Libya, the vehicles travel to Egypt and enter Libya from the Egyptian desert.  The vehicles will drop off the immigrants at the border and then drive back to Khartoum.  The immigrants will be loaded onto other off-road vehicles owned by the Libyan side of the criminal organization.  The immigrants are then taken to the oasis of Kufrah.  Once there, if the immigrant's money is finished, he will have to improvise. He will go into an "operative" undercover status to avoid being intercepted by the Libyan police and arrested while he makes his way to Tripoli.  If he has another 3-4 hundred dollars handy, he can contact the agents of the organization that will give him a ride to the Libyan capital.  He is hidden inside trucks carrying foodstuffs and taken towards the coastline.  Often the ride ends on the coast in Ajdabiya, where the immigrant is told that he is in Tripoli.  If this happens, the rest of the trip to Tripoli will be at his own risk and peril;

- When the immigrant reaches Tripoli he already knows who to contact.  There are two or three places in the outskirts of town where the Eritrean tend to gather.  The phone number (that has been provided while in Khartoum) is that of another Eritrean belonging to the criminal organization.  He will organize - once he has been paid, of course - the boarding of a ship to Italy;

- In order to hide the immigrant, the agent will ask for a further 200/250 dollars.  After cashing in, he will transfer the immigrant in a secure place where he will spend a time period generally no longer than 15 days;

- If there is still some money left, the agent will begin organizing the immigrant's trip to Italy. Depending on the present circumstances (whether the regime wants to strike out against the illegal traffic of immigrants or not), on the kind of vessel (more or less safe), on the difference between offer and demand, on the urgency of the transfer, the cost of the trip will vary from 1800/2000 dollars to 3000/3500 dollars.  The success of the transfer is not guaranteed, the security on the vessel is not guaranteed, nor is the amount of immigrants present on it.  Those that pay the money do so without any guarantee.  Guarantees are taken by the members of the organization:  they take the money, gather the immigrants in isolated farms, take their cell phones to avoid being intercepted.  The immigrant is now totally in the dark about the details of the trip.  Then, one night, without notice, they are taken to the beach and on a speedboat.  The departure is guaranteed, the arrival isn't.

crossing the sea

This was the journey of an illegal Eritrean immigrant up to the beginning of civil war in Libya.  Things have changed slightly since, Libya has begun cooperating with Italy and part of the traffic shifted to Egypt.  The war has interrupted - or maybe just suspended - this exodus from Asmara to tripoli.  The criminal organizations are still operating in the region and have begun operating on different routes.

The more functional route - until the Israelis will build a wall on Sinai's border with Egypt, from Gaza to Eilath - is the one that takes them through the Sinai peninsula into Israel.  In 2010 about 13500 illegal immigrants (not all of them Eritrean) have crossed the border into Israel from Egypt, causing a social emergency.  The year 2011, after the fall of Mubarak and the consequent institutional disorder in Egypt, was even worse.  If this route were to be closed, others would open up.  The next option could be to enter Greece (although Athens is quite rough with illegal immigrants) and then move successively to Italy or the Balkans into Europe.

The Eritrean's exodus towards Europe is determined by economic and political reasons alike, seen the persecutions carried out by Afeworki's regime.  But the Eritrean situation is similar to that of many other countries in Africa.  Thus the business of illegal immigration is a florid trade.  These criminal organizations operate in every country involved in the trade - departure, transit and arrival countries - and are usually conniving with the local institutions in order to operate undisturbed.  We are speaking of corrupt officials in the Sudanese and Egyptian police, in the Eritrean border patrol, among the Libyan police and army.  These officials are part of a network that includes the groups that operate along the borders dealing in drugs, smuggling, and in the traffic of human beings.  In the same network there are the Tuareg of Niger and Mali that move across the desert and the criminal groups that collect money for transit in these remote regions.  Each of these groups has reaped benefits from the traffic of illegal immigrants.  There is only one victim in this scheme: the immigrant.

In the description of the journey undertaken by the Eritrean illegal immigrant we see, from the very beginning, the presence of the criminal organizations.  Yet in many cases, especially for economic reasons, an immigrant may want to face this biblical exodus alone and call the organization only for the last part of the trip, be it by sea or land.

This is generally the case with Somalis that tend to enter Sudan through Eritrea (via Djibouti), from Ethiopia or - when they are already stationed in refugee camps (the biggest of which are the Dadaab and Kakuma camps) - from Kenya.  Their journey, in this case, is among the longest and most difficult.  Sometimes they are gathered in Dhobley (Somalia), they cross the border, move through the refugee camps of Ifo and Garissa, then stop in the Somali neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya.  They then travel to Lokichogio, and from there they reach the capital of south Sudan, Juba.  One must cross the entire south part of the country (plagued with civil war until recently), cross Darfur and reach Khartoum (the Sudanese capital is a neuralgic center for the traffic of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali illegal immigrants).  Otherwise they may try to cross Chad and then Niger and try to make their way to Libya.  Others yet choose to move from Nairobi, Kenya into Uganda and pass through Malaba or Busia, arrive in Kampala and then try to reach Khartoum from there.  Once in Khartoum, the immigrant will get in touch with the local criminal organization that can get him to Libya.  The agents will always be of the same nationality as the immigrant.

Then there are those from Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and from other countries of the Sahel-Saherian region.  They each follow different routes to reach the coasts of the Mediterranean sea.  They do not have enough money to pay the organization so they make their way alone to Mali then Niger.

This exodus follows the cycle of seasons:  one can cross the desert from October to March (when the temperature is acceptable), cross the sea between April and September (for the same reasons).  Unfortunately, despite these precautions, the Libyan desert and the Mediterranean sea have become the grave of many.  We lack statistics regarding these silent deaths but it is widely accepted that out of 100 illegal immigrants that leave on this journey about 10-20% make it to their destination.  Another 5-10% dies along the way.  The rest either give up or settles in one of the transit countries and lives a life that is worse than the one they were escaping.  Not only poverty, but also discrimination, exploitation, extortions and humiliations.  The trip's timeline is conditioned by the resources that the immigrant can gather along the way by working in the black market.  It can last years.  An immigrant that leaves his country doesn't think about the risks of crossing the desert or the sea.  He knows only what he is leaving behind, and that is enough to exorcise that which will come.

The immigrants that do not have the resources to pay the so-called "facilitators" (mostly those coming from sub-Saharan countries) are at the mercy of any injustice:  continuous mistreatments, thefts, rapes and forms of slavery.

They come from the route Tahoua-Agades, they move along desert areas infested by bandits and smugglers, trying to reach the Libyan border.  They cross it near the border post of Tohumm (aut Tumi) if coming from Niger.  They will cross between the oasis of Djanet and Tin Alkounse if coming from Algeria.  From here they continue towards the oasis of Ghat and then continue towards Sebhain, in the direction of the coast (this route is avoided by the organizations because it is infested by criminal groups affiliated to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb).  Others yet try to use the organizations routes (Kufrah, al Qatrum if Libya; Jebel Awainat if Egypt);

Yet from Agades they can also opt for an alternative route - also quite risky for the presence of bandits - that takes them to Nouadhibou, on the coasts of Mauritania to then try to reach the Canaries.  As a last alternative there is also the route that takes them from Mauritania to Morocco's forest of Bel Yunes (to then try to enter Ceuta illegally) or that of Mariwari (to try to enter the enclave of Melilla).  For those that have more money there is a further possibility:  to be embarked on ferries or fisher boats that travel across the Mediterranean to Spain.

Lastly, we have the immigrants from northern Africa:  Tunisians, Algerians and Egyptians (we are leaving out the Moroccans that tend to enter Europe directly from their country to Spain and the Libyans that, due to a higher level of wealth, tend to bring others to Europe and not themselves).

Algerians sometimes try to organize trips across the sea departing from the coast of Annaba.  In this case they will not try to reach Lampedusa but rather the Italian island of Sardegna.  When the traffic was flourishing, they preferred to enter Libya first.  For Tunisians and Egyptians, the Libyan route has always been prevalent.  The Tunisians enter Libya from Ras al Jadir following the routes of the smugglers.  Egyptians do the same from Umm Saad.  Unlike the sub-Saharan populations, these north Africans arrive in Tripoli easily, facilitated by the common Arab roots, by more permissive regional regulations, and by a reverential fear that the Libyan authorities have always had for neighboring countries, especially when these are bigger and more armed than Libya itself.  The latest statistics, before the downfall of Khadafi, said that there were about 2 million illegal immigrants present in the country (over a total of 6 million locals).  Almost one million are Egyptians.  Yet even the north Africans who wished to travel to Europe were forced to pay a "facilitator".  The big difference between them and the sub-Saharan immigrants is mostly in the treatment received in jail if arrested.

detention center in Misratah

At the time of Khadafi there were 25 structures that served as detention and identification centers for illegal immigrants.  The best known were:  Misurata, Zawiya, Janzur, Kufrah, Sabratha, Ganfuda,  Al Fellah, Ajdabiya , Khoms , Jawazat , Garabulli, Zleitan , Zuwarah, Sorman, Hun , Twisha, Benkheshir , Gurji and Bani Walid.  All of them were guarded by police.  All (except for Misurata) were without health structures.  Some of them were very big (Misurata and Kufrah had about 800/1000 detainees), others were smaller and more similar to police stations or military camps.  The Twisha center served as a departure point for forced repatriation via airplane.  Misurata was mostly for the Eritreans.  Generally all of the structures were overcrowded, in 2009 the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the centers was of 18-20 thousand.

Usually the men were separated from the women and the children were kept in the cells with their mothers.  There was no regulation on the duration of their stay.  There was no judge or sentence.  The police would arrest and release at will.  One could get out if he/she paid a prison guard or a policeman (in such case the detainee was immediately substituted with a new prisoner who would assume his identity).  The immigrant could also be "lent" to Libyan buyers so that he/she could be employed for illegal labour.

Abuses, mistreatments, rapes and beatings were daily occurrances, especially in the centers far from Tripoli and thus completely out of the international spotlight.  No officer from any international organization (among those that had limited access to the centers such as UNHCR, OIM, CIR, International Organization for Peace and Development) could report abuses without being expelled from the country on the following day.

There was thus a total lack of controls and a conniving silence even at the international level.  In theory the centers were supposed to serve the purpose of identifying the nationality of the detainee and to organize his trip home.  In reality the expulsions from the country took place, especially when the overcrowding became unbearable, upon a unilateral decision by Libya and not according to bilateral treaties between states.  The modality of expulsion also differed from one nationality to the next:

chartered flights for those from Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco;
forced expulsion through the common borders for Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians (some of the Egyptians would die of dehydration because they would be left inside crowded containers under the scorching sun;
Somalis and Eritreans would be assembled in Kufrah and then used for local black labour (they are citizens of countries that do not accept repatriation).  In the case of Eritreans some repatriations were attempted and caused revolts inside prison houses and international protests;
those from countries in the Sahel (Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso) were forcibly taken to the desert and threatened with retaliation if they were to come back;

This same fate has been indiscriminately applied to those illegal immigrants - that the Italian authorities refused to identify - that beginning in May 2009 were intercepted at sea and sent back to Libya.

Yet there are those that manage to make money even from the forced repatriation of immigrants.  A Somali ambassador in Tripoli who was designated at the time of Abdullahi Yusuf would - together with the prison officials - negotiate the ransom for his fellow Somalis.  They would receive money from the immigrants' families in Somalia and in return free the prisoner (the tariff: 800/1000 dollars).

The Nigerian cosul would be paid to certify the nationality of Nigerians (certification without which the immigrant would be expelled) according to his own price list.  (It must be noted that illegal immigrants, in order to avoid being expelled, tend to be without identification documents and to lie on their nationality and data.  Sometimes they speak in languages that are unknown to those interrogating them).

In some cases, abuses against illegal immigrants were perpetrated by the same criminal organizations that were paid for providing the trip.  The immigrants would be taken to the beach and suddenly the police would show up.  This meant double pay for the criminal organization that didn't even need to provide a vessel for the trip.

Those that were used in hard manual labor would not be paid by their Libyan employer and were threatened with arrest.  In Libya there is an entire parallel economy that has developed from this form of labor.

(end of part 1)