Migrants Don't See Traffickers as Criminals

People in Mali, credit: David Hammond

Published Jul 5, 2016 9:03 PM by Wendy Laursen

The odds of dying while attempting to illegally enter Europe by the Mediterranean Sea are around one in 80. So far this year, more than 2,500 migrants have drowned trying their luck.

Yet, in recent interviews conducted to understand what is driving these people into the hands of human traffickers, it is clear that those involved see the risk they are taking as a business transaction, not a crime.

Malick Traore of Mali is 25-years-old. His parents are dead; he has no education and he is engaged, with one child. “I have no worry about crossing the sea, because as soon as I take decision to leave my family for an unknown world, there is no more worry. I will either succeed or die. That is it,” he said in an interview with the U.K.-based charity Human Rights at Sea.

“It is even more risky to live in misery in my own home country with a family always having tears in their eyes from hungers, because in such situation I may end up by robbing or crooking someone by necessity, and in turn I will spend the rest of my life in jail in Mali.”

Traore is of course aware that he will pay human traffickers to get into Europe. “I cannot qualify the traffickers as criminals, because they do not call the migrant from their homes, or force them to cross the sea. It is just an agreement between shipman and client. You pay money, you get crossed the sea nothing else. So it is up to the migrant to accept the condition of shipment.”

Mariam Camara, 33, is a widow with two daughters. “I think, if I can qualify the traffickers as criminals, the Malian government is also a bunch of criminals, because it does not take care about those who are poor. We always see through TV that the government gets financial support from Europeans to help the poor people in Mali or those who want to run their own business, but the government members use that amount in own benefit. I confirm the criminal is Malian government but not the traffickers.”

Hamidou Thierro, 36, says: “I do not see those traffickers as criminals, because they are helping the poor migrants who are sacrificing their life to get into Europe to help back their families and plan better life for their children. The traffickers are not human life protection agent but normal transporter as air plane or train. The only problem is that they are reserved to the poor people. Only God may save someone’s life, no one else. Thus I cannot blame the traffickers as criminals.”

The extensive field work undertaken by Human Rights at Sea in the Sahel region of Africa has exposed core issues and triggers that cause African economic migrants to take the extreme risks that they do for the betterment of their personal situation, says Human Rights at Sea Founder, David Hammond. “These facts cannot be ignored, and it is clear that the migrant issue will not alter in the short-term without States’ continuous engagement and investment in resolving the root causes of the problem. It is also very clear that lack of rule for law and economic stability are key drivers of instability and human rights abuses. These must be addressed.”

The Dangerous Route to Italy

The sea route between Libya and Italy is now the main route for asylum seekers heading for Europe after an E.U. deal on migrants with Turkey dramatically slowed the flow of people reaching Greece. The central Mediterranean route, from Libya or other North African countries to Italy, is significantly more dangerous than the Turkey-Greece route.

A Special Case

Libya is a special case when it comes to human trafficking, states the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report released in June. Due to widespread insecurity driven by militias, civil unrest and increased lawlessness in Libya, accurate information on human trafficking has become increasingly difficult to obtain, in part due to the withdrawal of most diplomatic missions, international organizations and NGOs in 2014. 

In recent years, migrants have paid smuggling fees to reach Tripoli, often under false promises of employment or eventual transit to Europe. Once these victims crossed the Libyan border, they were sometimes abandoned in southern cities or the desert, where they were susceptible to severe forms of abuse and human trafficking. 

Trafficking victims or those vulnerable to trafficking, such as foreign migrants, are also vulnerable to increased violence in Libya including torture, abduction for ransom, physical and sexual assaults, arbitrary killings and inhumane detention. There have been multiple reports of migrants being held in detention centers, including those controlled by government-aligned authorities as well as non-state armed groups, where they were subject to overcrowding, torture and denial of medical care.

Prostitution rings reportedly subject sub-Saharan women to sex trafficking in brothels, particularly in southern Libya. Also, private employers in Libya mobilize detained migrants, from prisons and detention centers, for forced labor on farms or construction sites. When the work is completed or the employers no longer require the migrants’ labor, they are returned to detention.

No Investigations, No Prosecutions

Libyan law does not prohibit all forms of human trafficking. Articles in the penal code prohibit trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution, sexual exploitation, slavery, and child sex trafficking. However, the articles do not directly address forced labor.

As the criminal judicial system was not functioning throughout the reporting period for the 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, the government did not investigate, prosecute or convict any trafficking offenders in 2015. Neither did it report any investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking crimes, despite allegations of complicity. The government did not have any capacity or resources to proactively identify and protect trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as foreign migrants and women and girls in prostitution.

Brothers and Sisters

On releasing the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Secretary of State John F Kerry said that there is nothing inevitable about trafficking in human beings. “That conviction is where the process of change really begins, with the realization that just because a certain abuse has taken place in the past doesn’t mean that we have to tolerate that abuse in the future or that we can afford to avert our eyes. Instead, we should be asking ourselves: what if that victim of trafficking was my daughter, son, sister or brother?”

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.