Behind the refugee crisis, families in the West willing to pay and pay

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REST: Eritrean asylum seekers in Wad Sharifey camp in Sudan, October 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
LAND: Women disembark from the Cigala Fulgosi in Sicily on September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello
FENCE: Migrants waiting to leave the Cigala Fulgosi in early September. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

One man’s effort to shepherd his brother into Europe sheds light on the multi-billion-euro smuggling networks that are fuelling Europe’s migrant crisis.

ROME – One Tuesday night in June 2015, Tesfom Mehari Mengustu, an Eritrean delivery man in Albany, New York, got a call from a number he did not recognise. On the line was Girmay, his 16-year-old brother.

Girmay was 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. After that, he would 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, 33, was less enthusiastic. Four years earlier, he had paid $17,000 in ransom to free another brother who had been kidnapped crossing Egypt’s Sinai desert. On another occasion, he had sent $6,000 to a smuggler holding his sister hostage in Sudan. War-torn Libya, Tesfom knew, was particularly dangerous. That April, Islamic State militants there had executed 30 Ethiopians and Eritreans and posted the videos online.

Of those lucky enough to survive the desert trek, many never make it to Europe.

“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.”

But Tesfom also knew his hands were tied. 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, a few weeks after Reuters began tracking Girmay’s odyssey, Tesfom doubted he would ever see his brother again.

Tesfom’s months-long effort to shepherd his brother into Europe — via payments that spanned 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.  

Interviews with nearly 50 refugees, two smugglers and European prosecutors – as well as a review of documents released by Italian and European Union authorities – detail a sophisticated system built on an elaborate chain of dealers in Africa and Europe. The business relies 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.

Governments and law enforcement officials across Europe are trying to stop the smugglers. Europol says it and its partners have identified nearly 3,000 people since March 2015 who are involved in the smuggling trade. Italian police alone have arrested more than two dozen people whom prosecutors in Palermo believe helped organise thousands of boat trips between Libya and Sicily.

Sicilian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara has named two men – 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. The men, Ferrara alleges, control an operation that is “much larger, more complex and more structured than originally imagined” when he began looking into smugglers. Both suspects are still at large.

Ferrara says the kingpins are 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. Girmay himself declined to be interviewed for this story.

STRAINED FINANCE

Girmay was 2 years old when Tesfom last saw him in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. It was 2001, a decade after the country had won independence. Following a border war with Ethiopia that started in 1998, the Eritrean government had declared a state of emergency and indefinitely extended national service. Tesfom, conscripted right out of high school, deserted, borrowed 30,000 nakfa (nearly $1,900) and paid smugglers to get him to Sudan. After he left, authorities jailed his father, a school teacher, for eight months and fined him the equivalent of $3,000. Tesfom was later arrested in Egypt and sent back to Eritrea.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled in the past decade, making them the fourth-biggest group of refugees to enter Europe last year after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. The Eritrean migrants interviewed for this story paid an average $5,400 each for the journey in the second half of last year. That’s nearly eight times the World Bank’s estimate of annual per capita income in Eritrea.

A United Nations report in June 2015 described Eritrea as a “country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed.” The U.N. accused the government of gross human rights violations that “may constitute crimes against humanity.”

Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s ambassador to the U.N., said that was a “sweeping statement (that) does not reflect the reality in Eritrea.”  

In an interview in New York, Asmerom said people were moving to escape poverty. He blamed Western nations for encouraging Eritreans to leave by offering them instant asylum. The motive of these nations, he said, was to weaken and marginalise the Eritrean government in order to serve their geopolitical interests.

“The Europeans and the Americans are contributing to this dynamic of human trafficking and misery,” he said.

Tesfom tells another story. After his forced return to Eritrea, he says, he served three years in prison for desertion, locked in a windowless dungeon for half of that time. He was then sent to fight in a border skirmish with the tiny coastal state of Djibouti. He deserted again, only to be held in Djibouti for over two years as a prisoner of war. In 2010, gaunt and gravely ill, he was granted refuge in the United States after human rights activists campaigned for asylum for Eritrean war prisoners. That August, he flew to Albany to start a second life.

In his new home, Tesfom spent hours in online chat rooms talking to other Eritrean dissidents and attended rallies in Washington and New York trying to draw attention to the plight of his compatriots.

Despite the distance separating him from his family, he says he still feels responsible for his siblings’ well-being. In 2011, his brother Habtay tried to emigrate to Israel but was kidnapped for ransom and tortured by nomads in the Sinai desert. Tesfom negotiated with middlemen to obtain his release. Habtay is now 25 and lives in Israel.

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