Migrant Cash, RPGs and Selfies: Inside the World of Human Trafficking in the Horn of Africa

A new report exposes the organized criminal networks that traffic migrants along the dangerous Horn of Africa-Europe route.
February 26, 2016, 6:59pm
Photo of Sirte desert, Libya, 2007 by Thierry Gregorius/via Flickr

An African development organization has released a 40-page report on human trafficking along the route smugglers use to transport migrants from the Horn of Africa to Europe.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — a regional organization comprised of eight east African nations — spent fourth months last year investigating illegal migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe, in partnership with Kenya-based think-tank Sahan Research. Researchers spoke to dozens of migrants living in the Calais "Jungle," but also to migrants based in Rome, England, and Africa.

"The report was commissioned by Ethiopia and Sudan, two major transit countries and countries of origin for migrants traveling to Europe via Libya," said Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research. "Sudan suggested the report as a way of improving on the existing cooperation and as a contribution to the Khartoum [interregional] Process," an initiative to fight human trafficking between the Horn of Africa and Europe.

Researchers found that smugglers based in Libya and the Horn of Africa "recruit" many of their clients in schools, on the Internet, and by word-of-mouth. The report also stated that the number of migrants traveling along the so-called "central Mediterranean" route had increased fourfold between 2014 and 2015 — with a total of 154,000 migrants in 2015.

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At the heart of this huge influx is Eritrea, a member nation of IGAD where border guards are encouraged to shoot those trying to cross the border. In 2015, Eritrea became the most fled country in the region, with 39,000 people leaving the small east African nation. Many smugglers are said to be operating within the country.

"Most of the kingpins who dominate this illegal trade are Eritrean nationals, but they collaborate with minorities in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan in order to facilitate cross-border operations," said Commander Tuemay Aregawi, who is in charge of IGAD's operations to fight organized crime.

When contacted by VICE News Friday, the Eritrean Ministry of Information and the Eritrean embassy in Paris were unable to comment on the study in time for publication.

The report describes the region as an open-air market for smugglers, with ever-changing migration routes that adapt to supply and demand. In addition to trafficking humans, the criminal networks operating in the region also smuggle drugs and weapons. They also rely on "safe houses" — such as the ones in the port of Adjabiya, in Libya — to keep dozens of people locked up while they await their chance to leave the country. Some of them, the report said, will never leave.

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In a region where everything has a price, the safety of migrants is just another way to make a quick buck. Some smugglers, researchers said, charge $400 to $500 to "insure" migrants against abductions. If a migrant is taken hostage, the insurance guarantees that smugglers will negotiate for the person's release. Ransoms can be as high as $5,000.

Citing previous investigations carried out by Italy and Ethiopia, the report names smugglers like Medhanie Yedhego Mered, an Eritrean national accused by an Italian court of masterminding many migrant transfers along the Mediterranean route — including one in which 366 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013.

The report also includes photos of other suspected smugglers. There are two pictures of a man known as "Futsum," a smuggler allegedly operating in south Libya. In one picture he poses with a rocket-launcher and in another, with what looks like several thousand dollars in cash.

Photos of two suspected smugglers identified as "Weddi Issak" (left) and "Futsum" (right). (Photo via Sahan Research)

"These photographs come form police reports and the smugglers' own social media accounts," explained Bryden, adding that Italian, Ethiopian and other cooperative government authorities had shared information with the think-tank.

According to the report, wealthier migrants have their own category of smugglers, known as "first class" smugglers, who organize travel between Sudan, Singapore and the Philippines, and can procure visas and travel to Europe for between $20,000 and $30,000.

"Wedi Issak," "Obama," "Chegora," and "Galbedi" are all names features in the study's extensive list of suspected smugglers. Some of the traffickers described in the report have ties to the business community or to local government.

Efrem Misgna, an Eritrean smuggler arrested in Milan, Italy, in February 2015 was allegedly part of the Eritrean delegation during official government visits to Europe.

Migrants from eastern Africa usually travel to Libya via Sudan. The route between the two countries is dangerous, with some smugglers happy to leave migrants to die alone in the desert. IGAD's report refers to routine violence along the route. Women are particularly vulnerable to this violence, and many are raped along the way.

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According to the report, groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) operating in Libya regularly kidnap migrants, either to use them for the group's propaganda execution videos or to try and recruit them.

Other routes used by migrants go through Kenya and Tanzania and end in South Africa. The Gulf route has become less popular, particularly because of the conflict in Yemen.

In its conclusion, the authors of the report urge the European Union and global police agency Interpol to step up cooperation with regional authorities.

"Throughout our research, police officials in the Horn of Africa and in Europe stressed the need for better cooperation to face this issue. We are optimistic and we think [this request] will be well received," Bryden told VICE News.

The report also urges the UN Security Council to take individual sanctions against smugglers, since human trafficking finances many of the warring factions that are "threatening peace, stability and security in Libya."

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This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.