Rome refuses to comment on claims that millions of dollars have changed hands, as migrant arrivals in Italy plummet
ZAWIYA, Libya - Until recently, the shores of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, were the crossroads for much of Libya’s human trafficking.
But over the last few weeks, such trade has come to a standstill.
Arrivals to Italy from North Africa have declined by more than half from last year’s figures, with Reuters reporting on Monday that an armed group was preventing migrant boats from embarking from Zawiya.
Investigations by Middle East Eye reveal that the armed groups are receiving payoffs to stop the boats leaving Libya, in exchange for aid, aircraft hangars and large sums of money.
This area belongs to Libya only formally, but it has its non-written rules and its rules are in the hands of militias and several groups of armed gangs
- Yasin, local resident
A few weeks after Italy implemented a controversial code of conduct in the Mediterranean, the coast along Zawiya has fallen silent.
The agreement, signed by some international NGOs and boycotted by others, aims to regulate the rescue and transport of migrants by NGOs in the Mediterranean; one of the most controversial points of the code is the stipulation that Italian police be present on board NGO boats to investigate smuggling.
Zawiya, a town 50km west of Tripoli, is almost impossible to reach by car, and the road from the capital is dotted with at least six checkpoints.
The shore between Zawyia and Tripoli. The topography of the coastal area is perfect to access the water without being seen (Alessio Romenzi/MEE)
MEE reached the city by sea, from Zanzour, between Tripoli and Zawiya.
Yasin, a local, has been kidnapped twice by the same local Warshafana tribe and released only after ransom payments from his family.
He explained the complex but delicately balanced web of power, whereby different militias were responsible for various aspects of smuggling – of humans, oil and more.
"This area belongs to Libya only formally, but it has its unwritten rules and they are in the hands of militias and several armed gangs.
"Each one has its own specialisation, there is the gang that assaults armoured vehicles, one that kidnaps common people and one that controls the movements of the few foreigners who work here.
"Then there are Islamic militias; if you look around on the walls you find signs of Daesh, they are few, sure, but they are still [here] and work in the shade. The politicians of this country say they are looking out for its stability, but it seems to me that this country is under the regime of the militias."
Tranquillity along the shores
Sources in the nearby city of Sabratha told MEE that the tranquillity along the shores, from Zawiya to Sabratha, has come at a price.
"Money can buy anything here," said a local man who declined to reveal his name for security reasons.
"It is not possible to think that an area that for years has been the crossroads of human traffic is suddenly calm.
"The calm was brought about by economic agreements made with local militias. There is no possible negotiation, except with militias," he said.
The calm was bought about by economic agreements made with local militias. There is no possible negotiation, except with militias
- local source
People say that European intelligence agencies have been negotiating with the Sabratha municipality, which speaks on behalf of local militias that have received "a figure of $5m to keep migrants in the area for at least a month and not to launch rubber boats to Italy."
In recent days, the Italian Development Cooperation - a government foreign aid body - delivered 11 tonnes of supplies to the University Hospital of Sabratha.
At the same time, a well-informed person said that he received reports of a meeting in Sabratha between Italian intelligence officials and members of the Anas Dabbashi militia.
MEE could not independently confirm that this meeting took place.
A spokesperson for the Italian prime minister, Filippo Sensi, told MEE that the government does not comment on anonymous allegations.
Illegal migrants who were rescued by Libyan coastguards at sea arrive at a migration detention and shelter facility in the capital Tripoli's eastern suburb of Tajoura on 6 August 2017 (AFP)
An Italian air force transport, carrying general-purpose medical kits containing emergency equipment and a variety of medicines, took off from the UN Humanitarian Response Depot base in Brindisi in southern Italy, which is managed by the World Food Programme.
Another source in Sabratha said that any negotiations aimed at preventing the departure of migrants from the Libyan coast must have involved the Dabbashi miltiia, which controls the nearby Mellitah Oil and Gas compound.
Ahmed Dabbashi – also known as al-Ammu – heads security at the compound, and asked Italian intelligence for a hangar for him and his men, in which to establish his headquarters, the source said, in exchange for help preventing migrants from leaving the country.
In the summer of 2015, after four Italian employees of another oil company working in Libya were kidnapped, reportedly by a local gang linked to the Islamic State group, the Melittah Oil and Gas Company signed a private security agreement with the Dabbashi militia to provide security for the compound and surrounding roads.
The Dabbashi militia has for years been heavily involved in human trafficking and fuel smuggling in the area.
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"In this city, migrants have always provided a business," the second source said.
"They were a business when they wanted to leave and the traffickers organised dozens of rubber boats every day. And they are a business now when Europe needs to stop them because – you know - everything has a price.
"Imagine what it means for traffickers to lose millions of dollars; do you really think they would stop their illicit business just because the Sarraj government has reached an agreement to strengthen the Libyan coastguard?
"The traffickers only think about money and they have weapons. So to ensure the stability of the area you have to pay them. And pay them a lot," the source added.
Everyday life has become difficult for the residents of Zawiya, and whole families have sold everything they own, locals say, including their furniture and gold. Prices of basic goods have risen dramatically in recent years, and while the official exchange rate of the Libyan dinar is one to one and a half against the dollar, on the black market it is one to nine.
Filling the gaps of power
After the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, armed gangs have become increasingly powerful and have gradually filled in the gaps of power, as rival governments compete for control across the country.
These gangs and militias – hundreds of them – have turned human trafficking into an industry, making it more efficient and also more brutal.
This city has lived through the complicity of those in charge of fuel smuggling and human trafficking. You cannot maintain all this business while going unnoticed, in fact, it was only possible with the complicity of the coastguard
- Yasin, Zawiya resident
The larger brigades were able to take control of oil plants, airports and ports, while the others were fragmented throughout the country, often struggling among themselves in ancient tribal dynamics that many experts and witnesses have documented.
Fragmentation of the armed brigades and their internecine struggles to control strategic areas have undermined national development since 2011, with long-term negative consequences for the country's society, economy and stability.
The most powerful militia in the Zawiya area is Mohammed Kashlaf’s brigade, known as the Al-Nasr militia.
Libyan coastguards stand on an armoured boat as they patrol the sea between Sabratha and Zawiya on 28 July 2017 (AFP)
It controls the local oil refinery, whose operations are also covered by the new head of the coastguard in the area, Abdurrahman Milad (better known as al-Bija), whose forces have escorted the rubber boats leaving the area in exchange for toll payments. Any ships or rubber dinghies wanting to leave the coast of Zawiya have to be approved by him, sources say.
The only dinghies that were brought back belonged to smugglers who had not paid those above them, according to local witnesses.
"This city has lived through the complicity of those in charge of fuel smuggling and human trafficking. You cannot maintain all this business while going unnoticed; in fact it was only possible with the complicity of the coastguard," Yasin said.
This close relationship between militias and the coastguard has been well documented, and in June, the UN Security Council released a report on this dangerous complicity in Zawhia and Sabratha.
One of the most prominent names within the Nasr militia (allied to Sarraj) is Fathi al-Far, a former Gaddafi-era army colonel, who formerly controlled the only detention centre in Zawiya, where migrants were sold to traffickers.
The interior ministry now runs an official detention centre in Zawiya, and the Nasr militia retains control over the unofficial site.
The leader of Zawiya’s Libyan Petroleum Facilities militia, who has the task of protecting oil companies, is Mohamed Khoshlaf. He has earned millions of dollars by cramming migrants into refineries and forcing them to work free in the wells before selling them to traffickers, the UN report contends.
Local militias have for years controlled the illegal oil trade in Libya, and many have now added human trafficking (AFP)
His brother, Walid Koshlaf, deals with financial matters, the report adds.
Koshlaf's affairs are protected by Bija, considered in the report to be an "important collaborator of Koshlaf family".
Bija, as head of the coastguard, should be responsible for patrolling the coast and implementing the recent code of conduct signed between NGOs and the Italian interior ministry, which includes keeping the international charities out of Libyan waters.
But there is a clear conflict of interest, as he is simultaneously tasked with tackling trafficking, while still seemingly involved in the trade.
His soldiers are suspected by the UN od firing on a Doctor Without Borders ship in international waters on 17 August 2016.
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"There is nothing in this city that is not controlled by militias - milk prices, bread prices, fuel shifts, doctors trying to reach the detention centres in the area," Yasin says.
Today the Zawiya coasts are empty and many of the ships have left the Mediterranean for safety reasons.
Zawiya residents claim that part of the traffic is moving to the Garabulli area and that some traffickers are waiting for the unofficial agreement to expire in a month to reopen the route across the Mediterranean, with boats replacing the inflatables. With the NGOs no longer operating in the waters and unable to rescue their rubber dinghies, bigger boats will be more sea-worthy.
Hope in Haftar?
Amid the chaos, trust in Sarraj’s UN-backed Government of National Accord seems to be wavering, with many looking to General Khalifa Haftar as the only hope for the future.
"When Haftar declared that he had retaken Benghazi," says Yasin, "we were so happy. Libya needs an army, a recognised, institutional armed force.
"For three years we have lived in terror of being kidnapped; our families live in fear of being blackmailed.
"The militias control the most important assets in the country, our wealth.
"They blackmail the whole country, blackmail the government by controlling the oil terminals, living on the bribes they demand. This money should be distributed among the people and not just remain in the hands of groups of armed criminals."
* Names have been changed in the article for security reasons