Libya’s smuggling sector overshadows broken economy

The traffickers are virtually the only people in Libya these days to have a steady cash flow, from refugees paying for their "tickets" to a better life. The rest of the economy has collapsed.

Photo by: Mahmud Turkia/Getty
Photo by: Mahmud Turkia/Getty

Libyans wait to withdraw money from an ATM machine outside a bank in the capital Tripoli on March 27, 2016.

Francesca Mannocchi Francesca Mannocchi is a freelance journalist. In recent years she has covered the European migration crisis from Syria, Tunisia, Calais, the Balkans, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya. @mannocchia

TRIPOLI — The Libyan economy is collapsing. The Libyan dinar on the black market is little more than waste paper. Meanwhile, the lack of cash is enriching evermore enterprising traffickers.

Endemic corruption feeds everyone seeking to make money through fuel smuggling and human trafficking.

In Libya, the official government of Fayez al Sarraj does not have enough money to pay salaries for public service workers. Frustrated citizens began to storm banks last year, a phenomenon that has now become commonplace.

The traffickers are virtually the only people in Libya these days to have an uninterrupted cash flow. Much of the money comes from refugees paying for their "tickets" to a better life.

Until three years ago, Mahmoud Helal had an import and export company. He worked with automotive products and trucks.

He is no longer in business. Instead, once a week he gets in line at the bank on the outskirts of Tripoli, and waits his turn to ask for a little cash.

"There is no more money," he says, with a resigned face. "For [the past] three weeks, by the time my turn came, the bank’s officer told me that the cash was gone."

"At first, I was very angry, but now the anger has become fear. I have three teenage children, they are increasingly frustrated, and I'm afraid that they end up being recruited by traffickers."

Other people come closer to Mahmoud as he speaks to TRT World, standing in line at the bank.

Many of them are older men and have seen their country through very hard times.

"We have lived through the dictatorship for more than 40 years, we fought Gaddafi and five years after the revolution we live worse than before," says a friend of Mahmoud’s, who does not want to reveal his identity out of fear of retribution.

"My son fought beside me in 2011, he was twenty and he hoped our country could become finally free. He hoped to be able to have well-being and a happy future," says the man, who has been waiting for one hour already today to buy household fuel.  

These days, his son spends his days in the cafes. He has no job. His father, Mahmoud’s friend, is scared. Several of the armed militias, he says, are recruiting young people.


Fighting broke out again between rival governments in Libya's capital Tripoli in March. Over five years after the ouster of long-time Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, violence between armed factions continues to undermine the country's economy. (Reuters)

Only a few of them managed to get the cash at the end of the morning. For all the others, just the disappointment.

"We feel abandoned. European governments only caused damage in Libya. The latest error is the recent agreement to fight illegal migration from Libya to Europe," Mahmoud says.

"Europe should not give money to our Coast Guard, which is usually corrupt. If they want to help us, they should allocate funds for our economy, provide jobs for our young people," Mahmoud says, distressed, before he gives up and goes home, still cashless.

Libyan families have been enduring frequent power cuts for months. The prices of basic goods continue to increase dramatically, and insecurity has become a permanent state of affairs.

Selma, who is in her 50s, is buying bread and cucumbers in a shop.

"Last week while I was buying some fruits with my daughter," she says. "We heard gunshots from the end of the road, and we stayed for hours in the shop, locked inside waiting until the clashes ended."

In Tripoli streets there are dozens of checkpoints. Some are authorised by the interior ministry, others are independently organised by armed militias, which respond only to their own commanders.

"We all hoped that the Fayez al Sarraj government would bring change," Selma continues. "But he is failing."

Selma says the Sarraj government has no control of Libya, and that Tripoli is run by the militias. Then came even more inflation last month.

"People are exhausted," she says. "We have our oil reserves that could make us live serene, but now prices on the black market are becoming shameful."

In Tripoli, a source inside the interior ministry argues that the detention centres for refugees are collapsing and not enough money to feed the detained refugees. He said that this is leading some refugee centres to be closed, and that the refugees end up at the mercy of smugglers, once again.

"Europeans think that the problem in Libya is politics, but the real problem in Libya is the weapons," he tells TRT World, in an interview in the corridor of the ministry.

"European governments can not focus so much on a national unity government without a national unity army."

He adds that it’s not only the traffickers who loot refugees' money. It’s also the powerful armed militias doing it.

Another official along the corridor of the Libyan office says the other half of the truth, the militia-run detention "There are dozens and dozens of illegal detention centres over which we have no control — there’s thirteen in Tripoli alone."

Powerful militias pretend to "arrest" refugees and keep them in their centres, with no food and no water.

"They take their money, exploit them, abuse women and then bring them to Garabulli area to let them leave with the rubber boats, with the complicity of part of the coast guard," he says.

A deadly journey

According to the latest UNICEF report, in Libya there are at least 250,000 registered refugees, ready to go to Europe crossing the Mediterranean Sea, but the number would be at least three times higher.

The biggest and most vulnerable victims are children, according to UNICEF. The journey of children from Libya to Europe is often a fatal journey.

Their stories are full of violence, sexual abuse and slavery that began in Libyan detention centres. Out of 34 detention centres identified, 24 managed were by the government and 10 by the armed militias, who often have limited supplies of water, food, clothing and medical care.

"What really shocked us is what happens to these children during the trip to Europe," Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of UNICEF, said in a statement. "Many of them are raped, brutalised and killed."

At one of these centres, TRT World meets 16-year-old Pati.

She escaped from Nigeria alone to pay a smuggler, arrive in Europe and work to feed her younger siblings.

Pati’s family is very poor. In Nigeria, she had to drop out of school to help support her family. She was selling food and water at the roadside.

"My only concern was that my brothers and my sisters could eat every day and could go to school," she says.

Pati’s journey to Libya, some eight months ago, was very difficult, dangerous and heartbreaking. She walked two weeks to cross the Sahara desert, often without water.

"I even walked two whole days without drinking," she says.

Once in Libya, Pati and her friend contacted a smuggler. They paid $1,500 for their ''ticket," and waited for their turn to set sail.

"While I was on the boat," Pati continues. "I was deeply frightened. I was afraid of dying. The only thing that comforted me was the hope of reaching Europe and start studying again. I really loved school."

Pati’s dream was abruptly interrupted when the rubber boat on which she was travelling sunk a few kilometres from the Libyan coast.

She and dozens of other refugees she was travelling with were arrested by the Libyan coast guard and taken to a detention centre, halfway between Tripoli and Misurata.

Pati now lives in a small and dirty room which she shares with ten other women.

In their centre, there is no electricity and often no water.

The bathrooms are crumbling and the smell in the buildings is unbearable.

The UNICEF report points out that 181,436 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy in 2016. Sixteen percent of them are minor, and nine out of ten of them arrived alone on Italian coasts.


An African migrant prays at a detention camp in Tripoli, Libya, on March 22, 2017.

Out of the 4,579 refugees who died crossing the Mediterranean last year, 700 were minors.

"The route of the Central Mediterranean, from North Africa to Europe, is among those in the world where more people die and is among the most dangerous for children and women," said Afshan Khan, Regional Director and Special Coordinator of Unicef ​​for the crisis of refugees and migrants in Europe. "Safe and legal streets and security plans are needed to protect migrant children, to keep them safe and away from predators."

Lauria is a twenty-year-old Somali woman. She escaped from Garabulli detention centre last May.

Today she lives with dozens of other boys and girls in the outskirts of Misrata. They share humble concrete houses, often lacking running water.

The guys go out in the morning, taking their tools. They sat by the side of the road, waiting at the roundabouts for locals to offer them odd jobs for cash. Most often, however, they return home empty-handed.

Today, the Garabulli detention centre no longer exists. It was burnt down during recent clashes between militias and police. One of the local militias wanted to occupy the centre to take control.

Lauria's father was killed in Somalia, and her mother came from Jowhar a year ago to try to cross the desert in trucks. Her mother paid a smuggler to arrive in Italy on a boat, but she disappeared and now nobody knows where she is.

"Now I can not go back in Somalia," she says. "If I come home, soldiers will kill me too."

"I’ve been treated like an animal in the detention centre, Libyan soldiers threw our food on the ground and forced us to eat with hands and in a few minutes because then they have to open another cell and give the leftovers to others."

She says she has seen men forced to work from morning to night and women be beaten.

Lauria is one of hundred of thousands of refugees ready to go.

She knows it's dangerous, and that she risks being arrested again or drowning at sea. But she says it’s her only option.

"I can not imagine a life worse than this," she says. "We were just looking for a better life and we are imprisoned in a country in shambles."

Source: 
TRTWorld