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Immigration: Get behind the modern ‘Trans-Saharan human trafficking chain’ that is reshaping Europe with global impact

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‘Get behind the refugee crisis, families in the West willing to pay and pay…One man’s effort to shepherd his brother into Europe sheds light on the multi-billion-euro smuggling networks that are fueling Europe’s migrant crisis’
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REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello
FENCE: Migrants waiting to leave the Cigala Fulgosi
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Photo: REUTERS/Hans Pennink
BIG BROTHER: Tesfom Mehari Mengustu, here in Albany, New York, has helped three siblings flee Eritrea, including 16-year-old Girmay (inset), who is seeking asylum in Sweden.

One Tuesday night in June 2015, Tesfom Mehari Mengustu, 33,an Eritrean delivery man in Albany, New York, got a call from a number he did not recognise. On the line was his little brother Girmay, 16, calling from Libya. He had just spent four days crossing the Sahara. God willing, he said, the men who had smuggled him through the desert would get him to the capital city of Tripoli within days. He would then cross the Mediterranean for Italy.

“Europe is within reach,” Girmay told his brother. But he needed money to pay for the next leg of his journey.
Tesfom, was less enthusiastic. Twice had to pay ransom, once he paid $17,000 for a brother kidnapped crossing Egypt’s Sinai desert then $6,000 to a smuggler holding his sister hostage in Sudan. War-torn Libya, was particularly dangerous. That April, Islamic State militants there had executed 30 Ethiopians and Eritreans and posted the videos online. Many of  survivors of the desert trek  never make it to Europe, either.
“You will either drown in the sea or die in the desert,” Tesfom had already warned his little brother. “Or worse still, someone will slaughter you like a lamb on your way there. I can’t let you do this to our mother.”
Tesfom also knew Girmay might be tortured by smugglers if he didn’t pay. He agreed to send the money and told his brother to call back with instructions. For weeks, none came, the phone Girmay had used went dead. By mid-July,Tesfom doubted he would ever see his brother again.
The months-long effort to shepherd his brother into Europe, via payments spanning at least four countries, three different bank accounts, and the use of three different kinds of money transfers reveals the inner workings of the multi-billion-euro smuggling networks that are fuelling Europe’s migrant crisis.
 …Europe at last, the End Game?
Fast forward, three months later, on the first Wednesday in September, at approximately 1 a.m., Girmay crammed into a small boat with 350 others, according to the accounts of two refugees on the trip. Within hours, the boat was spotted by rescue ships. The next day, he landed in Italy.
Girmay made his way quickly up Italy, into Germany.  Enroute he had journeyed through Sudan, Libya,Italybeen and Germany . He was captured, tortured and ransomed. Lived in refugee camps several times. He is now in Sweden, seeking asylum according to his brother.
Girmay’s route to European ‘Freedom’

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 Continue to read about the ‘Trans-Sahran trek‘ ……..

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Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
REST: Eritrean asylum seekers in Wad Sharifey camp in Sudan

Tesfom also knew Girmay might be tortured by smugglers if he didn’t pay. He agreed to send the money and told his brother to call back with instructions. For weeks, none came, the phone Girmay had used went dead. By mid-July,Tesfom doubted he would ever see his brother again.
The months-long effort to shepherd his brother into Europe, via payments spanning at least four countries, three different bank accounts, and the use of three different kinds of money transfers reveals the inner workings of the multi-billion-euro smuggling networks that are fuelling Europe’s migrant crisis.
Europol, Europe’s police agency, says people-smuggling may have generated between $3 billion and $6 billion last year. Most of the money for passage is raised and transferred by migrants’ and refugees’ relatives around the world.The smuggling rings exploit captive consumers thousands of miles apart – migrants on a quest for freedom or opportunity, and their families back home and in the West, who are willing to pay to ensure their loved ones make it. Refugees,  smugglers and European prosecutors tell the story.
A sophisticated system built on an elaborate chain of dealers in Africa and Europe,  relying on a trust-based exchange to transfer money without inviting scrutiny. Smugglers offer enticing group deals, such as one free crossing for every 10. During the summer’s high season, prices soar. A single boat crossing on the Mediterranean cost $2,200 per passenger in August, up from an average $1,500 a year earlier, according to refugees’ accounts.
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Photo:REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello
LAND: Women disembark from the Cigala Fulgosi in Sicily

Europol has identified nearly 3,000 people involved in the smuggling trade. Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara has named two men, both at large, Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian, and Medhanie Yehdego Mered, an Eritrean as kingpins in an organised-crime network responsible for bringing thousands of refugees to Italy. These men, control an operation that is “much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined” when he began looking into smugglers.
Ferrara describes the kingpins as opportunistic, purchasing kidnapped migrants from other criminals in Africa. They are also rich. By his calculations, each boat trip of 600 people makes the smugglers between $800,000 and $1 million before costs. Another smuggler whose activities Ferrara has been investigating made nearly $20 million in a decade.
Smugglers cut costs to maximise profit. They use cheap, disposable boats, dilapidated and rarely with enough fuel. They bank on Europe’s search and rescue missions. Some 150,000 people were saved in one year by an Italian naval operation that was launched in late 2013, according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It was suspended in late 2014 to save money and has been replaced by a more restricted European operation.
If a human cargo does go down, the smugglers’ losses are minimal.
“There is no risk for the business,” Ferrara said. “If you traffic in drugs and you lose the drug, somebody must pay for the drug. If (the migrants) sink and most of them die, there is no money lost.”
So far, the networks have mostly eluded law enforcement because they are based on anonymous cells spread across many countries. Neither the refugees seeking smugglers’ services nor the families footing the bill are interested in drawing attention to how the networks operate. Itt is also difficult for the formal banking laws to track because the preferred method of transactions is a payment system called hawala.
 ..Hawala 
An informal, if legal way of transferring money and is most used by Asian and African immigrants in the West. There are no signed contracts, and few transactions are recorded in ledgers. It depends on close personal relationships between people often separated by vast distances. An agent, often in a Western country, accepts a deposit and calls or emails a counterpart in Africa or Asia to say how much money has been received. The offshore agent then pays out that sum to the designated recipient, minus a transaction fee and often at a better exchange rate than a bank would offer. Smugglers use hawala transfers for 80 percent of their transactions.

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The feeders usually work in businesses, such as home rentals and catering, that are likely to bring them into contact with new arrivals. They promote smugglers, who pay them a retainer fee, and set up deals between refugees and smugglers. Sometimes, they hold smugglers’ fees in escrow until refugees reach Libya. Recent refugees, in fact, say they only dealt with feeders and never negotiated directly with smugglers.
In Khartoum, Tsegay arranged for Girmay and 300 others to cross into Libya for $1,600 a person. On the edge of the desert, the refugees were handed over to Libyan smugglers, Girmay told his brother on the phone.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the Sahara crossing is at least as deadly as the Mediterranean, although most incidents go unreported. Some refugees fall off their trucks and are left behind as their column races through the desert. Accidents are common. But the biggest problem is dehydration.

…. Girmay’s Journey
Late 2014, Girmay was thrown in jail after he dropped out of high school to evade national service. In May last year, he escaped and slipped into Sudan.
For most Eritreans aiming for Europe, Sudan is the first major stop.
Girmay took him across Eritrea’s western border to the Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan. From there, he called his parents to ask for money to pay smugglers who could get him past checkpoints on the road to Khartoum. “My father was distraught,” Tesfom said. “He told me, ‘I should have never let you leave. I could have had all my children here with me.'”
Once Girmay had the money, according to his brothers, he searched for a smuggler in Khartoum and found a man named Tsegay. Middlemen like Tsegay, who often go by their first name to shield their identity, are trusted by refugees trying to cross the Sahara. They work with Sudanese and Libyan partners who have cleared the route ahead. Their best asset is a reputation – deserved or otherwise – as honest men and women who speak the languages of the people they serve, share the same religion, and often hail from the same towns and villages. They hire people called “feeders” to advertise their safety records and to recruit new arrivals.
…The Long Wait
When Girmay failed to get in touch after his June call, his brothers tried to find out what happened, spurred by anxious calls from their mother. Habtay, the 25-year-old living in Israel, sent Tesfom a text on Viber with a number for Tsegay, the smuggler in Khartoum.
Tesfom contacted Tsegay that week. The smuggler was brief but reassuring. Girmay would be in Tripoli in two days, Tsegay said, and promised to call back with more details. That night, Tsegay disconnected his phone. He did not answer repeated calls from Reuters.
Desperate, Girmay’s older brothers called people they knew in Sudan and Libya. Someone said there were three trucks in Girmay’s convoy, but that only two had arrived in Tripoli. One smuggler told Tesfom to be patient; someone would eventually end up calling him for ransom.
Libyan militants routinely round up refugees and hold them in detention camps until they, or their families abroad, pay for their release. The price ranges from $1,200 to $3,400. This is such common practice that an Eritrean smuggler described negotiations with abductors as a routine part of his job. 
To prepare for the ransom demand he assumed was coming, Tesfom borrowed money in July and sent $3,000 to his brother in Israel. In two days, his brother confirmed that the sum, minus a service fee, had been deposited into his account in Tel Aviv.

…”Tell Me If He’s Dead”
In July, a month after Girmay’s disappearance, there was still no word from him. Tesfom found the uncertainty unbearable. At night, he replayed their last conversation in his mind and regretted his angry words. The hardest part was hearing the pleas of his mother in Eritrea. “Tell me if he’s dead,” she kept asking. Tesfom stopped answering her calls.
Then, one Friday morning in mid-August, Girmay called Tesfom from Tripoli. He said he had been captured by a militia. He escaped when fighting broke out near where he was being held, and walked for days until he reached the city. He had not eaten in two days.After some back and forth, the brothers decided that Girmay should hand himself over to a well-known Eritrean smuggler living in Libya called Abusalam.
After the brothers paid $2,200 in boat-passage fees, Abusalam sent Girmay to a holding cell by the sea where other Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees awaited a vessel. Migrants are assigned numbers so that smugglers can keep track of who has paid and who has not. They are also assigned places on the boat: above deck, where the chances of surviving are the highest, and below deck, where any shipwreck means near-certain death.
In the days before Girmay set out across the Mediterranean, Libya and its shores were becoming more dangerous. A boat sank near Zuwara and hundreds of bodies washed ashore. In 2015, an estimated 3,800 people drowned or went missing while crossing the sea, according to the IOM. About 410 more died or disappeared this year.
On the first Wednesday in September, at approximately 1 a.m., Girmay crammed into a small boat with 350 others, according to the accounts of two refugees on the trip. Within hours, the boat was spotted by rescue ships. The next day, he landed in Italy.
Girmay made his way quickly up Italy, into Germany, and then on to Sweden. He is now seeking asylum there, according to his brother.
Around the time Girmay arrived in Italy, his father in Eritrea was thrown in jail again. He was reportedly arrested at a hawala agent’s while receiving money Tesfom had sent from New York. Two weeks later, he was released on a 200,000 nakfa (nearly $12,360) bail.
“That is the thing about our suffering,” Tesfom said. “It knows no beginning or no end.”

 

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