September 21, 2009

XII. Linkages between Smugglers and Security and Law Enforcement Officials

In many cases, migrants traveling through Libya do not know whether their abusers are police or criminals, but often express the belief that both groups are in league with each other as each exploits and abuses vulnerable migrants. Migrants’ perceptions about the police and the smugglers are colored by their understanding of the control that the regime exercises throughout Libyan society and about the attitudes of Libyans towards foreigners, and sub-Saharan Africans in particular. Habtom, a 28-year-old Eritrean man, who arrived in Libya in June 2008, explained:

The police know everything that happens in Libya. They know what is going on with the boats. They get their own share of the money. The only problem comes when the police don’t get their share of the money or too little of it. If the government didn’t like [the migrant smuggling] they wouldn’t do it.[137]

Migrants almost universally expressed to Human Rights Watch the belief that the smugglers have close relations with some Libyan officials. From migrants’ accounts, the smugglers who organize the boat departures are sometimes linked to the very forces that are charged with preventing irregular maritime migration. Tomas, a 24-year-old Eritrean, was part of a group of 108 migrants who balked at boarding an obviously unseaworthy vessel in October 2006. After the migrants began resisting the smugglers, navy officials intervened, but directed their efforts not at the Libyan criminals organizing the life-threatening journey, but at the migrants who were refusing to board the boat:

Once I saw that boat, I knew I would die if I went on it. They forced two people on the boat and the rest of us began fighting them. Many military men came and caught us at the boat.
The smugglers had an agreement with the navy forces to take our money. They put us directly into the navy port office. The people who demanded money from us were wearing navy uniforms. They had an athletic build. They were clearly navy, not coast guard. A high-level naval officer spoke to us.
What surprises me is that the person who told us he would take us to Italy is the same person who arrested us. The ones who arrested us were in civilian clothes. Those who said they were going to take us were in uniforms. But they all arrested us together.[138]

Tomas’s group tried to scatter, but most, including Tomas, were caught and detained. Tomas made four attempts to leave Libya by boat. He was arrested and detained multiple times in various detention centers, and sent back to the border region purportedly for the purpose of being deported. His extensive experience with smugglers and security and police forces left him no doubt about their connections:

I think the smugglers were 100 percent connected to the police and the military. I saw the officers in uniform with stars on their shoulders talking to the transporters. And the drivers said, “There is no problem,” when we saw the police or military. The smugglers also told us if we didn’t pay them that we would go to prison.[139]

Somali migrants also told Human Rights Watch about the involvement of the Somali embassy in smuggling operations. Abdi Hassan, a 23-year-old Somali, said that he went to the Somali embassy to pay for his boat to Europe, and that he was transported directly from the embassy to Garabulli, the point of disembarkation:

The head of the trafficking, [name withheld], works in the Somali embassy in Tripoli.  He has a big office in the embassy and controls 90 percent of the boats. His office is well equipped with computers and everything. We paid our money to this man inside the Somali embassy. They take Western Union money transfers there. My aunt sent him $500. He has good connections with the Libyan government. Everything is connected from Khartoum to Kufra to Benghazi and Tripoli and the boats. It is all connected. They took us from the embassy to Garabulli, a trip of about one and a half hours, where we waited for the boat.[140]


Police and Smugglers: Bribes, Extortion, and Robbery

Whether they are involved in larger smuggling operations or not, police on the roads, particularly roads leading from the borders, as well as the police guards in migrant detention centers routinely profit by demanding and accepting bribes as the price for release from their custody.[141] In the case of migrant detainees, this usually involves arranging contact with the families of detainees back in their countries of origin and making wire transfers of money; it often also involves the police arranging connections with smugglers for post-release travel.

Aron, a 36-year-old Eritrean who was detained at the airport jail in Tripoli in 2007 said that the cost for a bribe was either $500 in cash or about $800 for a wire transfer. After he paid the bribe, Aron said that a policeman in uniform took him from the jail in the police car and put him on the street in Tripoli. He later made an appointment with the policeman and “gave him money to release my friends.” Aron said, “It’s a rotating business. They take people out in the city, get money, and replace the prisoners with other Africans.”[142]

Smugglers also rarely perform their service for the fee agreed upon at the beginning of the journey. On the contrary, their usual approach is to demand more money mid-way through the journey, holding migrants against their will for ransom and threatening their lives.

Habtom, the Eritrean man quoted above, traveled through the Sahara desert with a group of 95, of whom 19 lost their lives during the journey.  He said that the smugglers held him against his will in a closed house in Misrata—not at the detention center—and threatened him with being sent to the official detention center if he and his fellow migrants did not pay more:

The men guarding us in the house carried sticks and knives. They demanded that our families send money. The Libyans [the smugglers] said if we didn’t pay them the money they would send us to prison. They were interconnected, the smugglers and the police. When they took us from city to city, the police met us and let us pass. They knew the transporters.[143]

Another Eritrean, Iggi, paid smugglers $700 to take him from Khartoum to Tripoli. Instead, they took him only as far as Kufra, where they held him and 78 other people in a closed 10x20 meter room with no windows for ten days and demanded more money:

A Somali man died in that room. I don’t know his name. We couldn’t communicate with him, but we did everything we could to save him. During our 13 days traveling in the desert the transporters had mixed benzene with our water so we would drink less, and he got sick. The guards knew he was sick, but they wouldn’t take him to the hospital or do anything to help him.
There was no communication with the [smuggler] guards. They only knew to ask us for money. They didn’t give a damn if our arms and legs were broken or if we were sick. They hit me many times. They beat you for urinating without permission or for no reason, just for walking by, whenever they wanted. They hit you on the eyes, the legs, anywhere.[144]

Iggi said that the police and the smugglers were closely connected:

The transporters who kept us in the room in Kufra told us they had a connection to the government. We saw it ourselves. Two police cars stopped us in the Sahara. One of the drivers got out and talked to the police, and they let us pass. When we first entered the city of Kufra we were all caught by the police. We spent two days with the police and they told us we could go. But the driver for the police also worked for the transporters and took us back to the transporters and turned us over to them, where we spent 13 days in the closed room.[145]

Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Tunisian, spent three months in a smuggler’s house in Tripoli where he was held against his will in poor conditions. He believed that the smuggler who controlled him was connected with the police:

When we moved from Al-Zawiya to Tripoli we could see that the smugglers were friends with the police. The police were helping the smugglers organize the trip. After we got to the house where they kept us in Tripoli we could not leave. Not only was the food and water bad, but also they beat us. We were not allowed to talk. I asked for my money back, but they refused.[146]

Ghedi, a 27-year-old Somali, encountered problems with smugglers as soon as he entered Libya in February 2009. He named the head of the smuggling operation and said that members of the police force worked for him. They threatened his life and held him against his will for ransom:

 [Name withheld] is one of the big smugglers. He is not part of the police himself but some of the police work for him. [Name withheld] hijacked me, tortured and beat me. He said,  “If you do not pay me this money, I will kill you.” He required that my family send him $700. The circumstances compelled me to call my father and have my father send him the money or I would be killed. My father sold our home and paid the money so they wouldn’t kill me.
They took me to a house in Ajdabiya. It was like a jail. It had four guards and four guard dogs. There were 24 people imprisoned there. We stayed there for six days. The smugglers beat me every day. They took me in a separate room and beat me. They hit me with a club all over my body, saying if you don’t pay $700 we will kill you. The beating lasted for ten minutes. The next day they beat me for 12 minutes.
The man who beat me was connected to the police. He was not wearing a police uniform, but he showed me his police ID card. He said if I didn’t obey, he would take me to jail.[147]


The smugglers not only treat migrants with brutality in the places where they detain them against their will, but also the way they transport the migrants is often unspeakably cruel. A video published by La Repubblica on June 26, 2009 provides shocking images, apparently of a large group of migrants being pulled out of a completely closed cylindrical container of a tanker truck normally used for transporting liquids, such as fuel.[148]



[137] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B60), Rome, May 9, 2009.

[138] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B68), Rome, May 20, 2009. A full transcript of Tomas’s testimony appears on the Human Rights Watch web page at: (Hereafter: Tomas Interview).

[139] Ibid.

[140] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B/H 32), Malta, May 4, 2009.

[141]  In addition to the findings of this report, our 2006 report, Stemming the Flow, also documents this phenomenon.  It found, “endemic corruption in the immigration system.  Migrants and refugees consistently reported that detainees could buy their way out of detention by bribing guards or their commanders.” Stemming the Flow, p. 38.

[142] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, R/L5), Caltanissetta, Sicily, October 28, 2008.

[143] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B67), Rome, May 20, 2009.

[144] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B66), Rome, May 20, 2009.

[145] Ibid.

[146] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed, B57), Lampedusa, May 14, 2009.

[147] Human Rights Watch interview (name changed B45), Trapani, Sicily, May 9, 2009.

[148] “Illegal immigrants in tankers: A new video of shame from Libya: traffickers keep on working,” La Repubblica, online version, June 26, 2009,  (accessed July 16, 2009).