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The organisation of migrant smuggling

Methods used by smugglers to transport migrants through the various phases from the country of origin to Libya vary a lot depending on the routes followed, the means of transportation used and the length of the journey. However, once in Libya, most migrants describe similar narratives concerning the methods adopted by smugglers to accommodate them inside houses or shelters located near the main departure hubs, waiting for the right time to leave. Well-organised groups and networks in Libya, mostly composed of Libyan smugglers, intermediaries and brokers, but also traffickers apparently closely linked to Islamic terrorist organisations, such as Islamic State and al Qaeda, manage these phases which precede the embarkation of the migrants.

The coastal areas near Tripoli and Bengazi are the busiest places for smuggling operations from Libya to Italy. Here migrants are crowded into safe-houses for days, weeks and sometimes even longer periods waiting for embarkation. This is a crucial phase of the journey since large numbers of people are usually collected together, thus the risks of being intercepted by the police, and more recently by the various militias, or being observed by local people increase. Regarding the latter risk, the migrants interviewed often underline the racist attitude of Libyan people towards black migrants, who are treated and exploited as servants, and the fear which accompanies this waiting. With the explosion of the civil war, black migrants living in Libya experienced an increase in racist attacks from the local population since most of them were initially considered supporters of the Gaddafi regime.

During this time spent waiting, migrants usually live locked inside shelters or houses and cannot go out. Because of their illegal status they are particularly afraid of the Libyan police and militias which are notorious for being particularly brutal and violent with migrants, especially those coming from the Horn of Africa and West Africa, as well as inclined to bribery. The Libyan brokers employ intermediaries to provide food and water, and as overseers, often intervening violently to solve any disputes between migrants. These intermediaries are the only contact that migrants have with the external world, since due to their illegal status and the fear of being intercepted, they cannot go out. During this period any need such as food, telephone cards or cigarettes is usually paid at a very high cost since migrants are basically viewed as a source of money to be exploited. Key hub cities such as Zuwarah have benefited significantly from this business. In order to avoid problems related to tensions among different groups, migrants are usually lodged on the basis of nationality or language and, sometimes, sex.

Whilst migrants await their departure, the intermediaries continue to seek other clients to maximise the numbers on a single boat, and liaise with the Libyan smugglers, who manage and control the business, to organise the details of the crossing. When the boat is ready, migrants are transported overnight by the smugglers in small groups, usually in the countryside where there are no controls and then, finally, embarked. In this regard, most migrants report that in the case of small boats, the pilot is usually a migrant selected some time before the departure to perform this role. This person is usually chosen by the national intermediary, separated in advance from the rest of the group, lodged in a place where intermediaries live and briefly trained by Libyan brokers to pick up some basic skills. In recompense, the pilot is not usually charged for the journey and, according to some interviewees, might even receive some money for his services (Interview with migrants n. 2). Other migrants report that their pilot was entitled to make the journey for free and to bring with him other two people who did not pay (Interview with migrants n. 18). Most recently, during the Mare Nostrum operation from the end of 2013 to November 2014, several smuggling operations were organised using very old fishing boats which were overcrowded and usually rescued by the Italian authorities just a few hours after departure.

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