Smuggling illegal immigrants is lucrative business

Friday 15/05/2015
“Mohamed Ali Malek” (L) in custody

Tunis - The coastal fishing commu­nity of La Chebba in central Tunisia has been in a state of turmoil since one of its residents was arrested and jailed on the Italian island of Sicily.

Noureddine Mahjoub is facing charges of involuntary shipwreck­ing, involuntary manslaughter and facilitating illegal immigration fol­lowing the sinking of the ship he was allegedly piloting on April 19th with more than 850 clandestine migrants on board. Only 28 people were res­cued when the crowded boat sank.

During his hearing by Judge Rosa Alba Recupido in Catania, Mahjoub identified himself as Mohamed Ali Malek. His brother, Makram Mah­joub, declared to Reuters that he “has no idea where this name came from” and that he “was under the impression that his brother was waiting on tables in a café in Libya.”

He added that his brother “had contacted the family a few days before this tragedy complaining of pressure from some Libyan traffick­ers to make him pilot a boat”, before concluding that “if he had done it, it must have been undoubtedly under threat … his experience as a sea fish­erman must have brought him to the attention of these people.”

Libyan traffickers generally choose a migrant to pilot the boat. The train­ing period is very short, from a few minutes to half a day depending on the trafficker’s estimation. In the event the other clandestine pas­sengers show their dissatisfaction with the method or with the boat’s condition, they are threatened and forced to take the journey. Mark Mi­callef, chief reporter of the Times of Malta newspaper, and who has been investigating clandestine migration networks for years, reports a highly elaborate level of organisation of the smuggling networks.

According to Micallef, “Once at sea, some traffickers give a GPS phone to the designated pilot so that he can send an SOS to the Italian Coast Guard.”

Makram Mahjoub’s assertions were partly corroborated by his brother’s attorney, Massimo Fer­rante, who declared that his client maintained that he was a migrant like the rest and that he had paid for his spot on the boat.

These facts recall a case in which Elmi Mouhamud Muhidin from So­malia was sentenced to 30 years in prison by the criminal court of Ag­rigento, Italy, the harshest sentence ever for a smuggler of migrants.

Muhidin had mingled with the sur­vivors of the Lampedusa shipwreck of October 2013, pretending to be a migrant who had paid for his cross­ing like the others. He was arrested a month later at the holding centre on the island after being identified by other survivors as the person who had mistreated them before sailing, imprisoned and tortured them using electric discharges and raped some 20 women.

In the case of Noureddine Mah­joub, it is certain that Italians will diligently adjudicate the case, in­cluding determining the number of deaths, even though most of the bodies remain locked within the hold of the sunken ship.

“Sea dogs” is the name given by the Tunisian fishermen of La Chebba to smugglers working the waters of the Mediterranean, a reference to the sharks that often tear their nets and chase the fish away from their fishing grounds.

Tragic crossings by illegal mi­grants are not new to the commu­nity. Indeed, many local fishermen were willing, some years ago, to lend or rent their boats to migrants trying to reach Europe from Tunisia.

As pointed out by François Ge­menne, researcher and lecturer specialising in migration issues and political scientist at the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI), the fishermen were doing it as ‘amateur’ smugglers, concerned with the migrants’ well-being and with their safe arrival at their desti­nation.”

Today however, fishermen engag­ing in this activity to supplement their monthly income are likely to be forced to step down in favour of the “sea dogs”, in greater numbers, organised in networks, armed and without scruples.

Some 51,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea this year, 30,500 of them via Italy, according to the U.N. refugee agency, and calmer seas in the run-up to summer have encouraged thousands to take the risk in recent weeks.

About 1,800 people are thought to have drowned in the Mediterranean so far in 2015.

Italian National Police, under the leadership of its new boss, Ales­sandro Pansa, is more than willing to communicate with the media by sending them videos of their inves­tigations. One such video shows two alleged traffickers arrested by Ital­ian police in Palermo on April 19th following two months of investiga­tions. They were Ermias Ghermany from Ethiopia and Medhanie Yehde­go Mered from Eritrea and their gang was based in Libya.

The video shows several landings of illegal immigrants on Sicily. Gh­ermany is alleged to be one of the key players in the Lampedusa trag­edy of October 3, 2013, in which 366 died. Mered is reputed to be his as­sistant. Wiretaps allegedly revealed that they were without qualms exchanging information on the mi­grants they were moving between camps in sub-Saharan Africa, until reaching makeshift boats destined for the Mediterranean crossing.

According to the police, the aver­age cost per migrant was $4,000- $5,000 to reach the Libyan coast. An additional $1,000 is charged to cross the Mediterranean.

The smuggling network has rami­fications even in Italy, providing pas­sage from Sicily to Rome or Milan for an additional $220 to $440. All in all, each migrant pays between $5,000 and $6,700.

Wiretaps supposedly revealed that the network of smugglers sent across the Mediterranean around 5,000 people in eight months and that they were exchanging tips on how to in­vest their booty. One of them men­tioned the sum of nearly $190,000, likely his share from just one cross­ing. The inhumanity of their traffic is all the more apparent in one of their exchanges in which they referred to a shipwreck not in terms of lives lost but in terms of “significant revenue losses”.

The intelligence gathered and the wiretaps were used by the Italian court to convict the traffickers. They are expected to be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Neutralising dangerous traffick­ers does not necessarily constitute a harsh blow to the trafficking net­works in the Mediterranean Basin. As long as there continues to be de­mand, there will be those to meet it.

For Mehdi Lahlou, researcher at the Moroccan National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economics in Rabat, specialising in migration, “a boat with 500 people onboard, exacting hundreds and even thou­sands of euros per migrant, that cor­responds to big business carried out by powerful mafias.”

Chances are high then that for eve­ry criminal neutralised, many more are ready to take his place.