Libyan-based Italian journalist Nancy Porsia, about the worsening issue of human trafficking between Libya and Europe.
Our correspondent sat down with Italian journalist Nancy Porsia, who has lived and worked across the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. She has reported from Libya since 2013 and has reported extensively on an issue endemic in Libya: human smuggling. Porsia told Correspondents that people smuggling it is a business like any other and that those who do the job are just ordinary people.
Would you say that illegal immigration issue is a legacy that Mediterranean countries inherited from Gaddafi?
I think we should call it irregular not illegal immigration because it is legitimate. Migrants do not have regular documents but it is their right to move from one place to another. The irregular immigration in Libya is not a heritage from Gaddafi’s time but it is (a result of) the country’s geographical position and that it serves as Africa’s main gate into Europe, so it is just a transit country. As you know, during Gaddafi’s time there where many migrants and they used to come to Libya and stay a while to work and only a few of them used to look for smugglers to leave.
Today, since Libya is unsafe and has a weak economy, people first come to Libya just to find jobs and then continue to another destination. There is no army, no government, no state and militias are all around. You now have in Libya a big network of mafias and as immigration and smuggling are big businesses, the mafia is running the businesses and the numbers are increasing. It is as the Libyans say: ‘In the past there was only one Gaddafi and now there are many.’
Do you agree that human smuggling has become an industry?
Kind of, yes. According to figures it has increased five times more than under Gaddafi, so it is a very flourishing industry.
On what this industry is based?
There are two kinds of business: smuggling and trafficking. Unfortunately, in Libya, these two kinds of business are mixing up and this is a big issue. It happens very often that the migrants are not free to choose where to leave or where to go but they are moved by force, from one group to another. This is really an alarming and worsening signal because it is less about smuggling and more about trafficking.
You met face to face with human smugglers. Would you tell us who is a smuggler? What are his thoughts, habits, levels of education, religious beliefs?
In any business, you have several kinds of profiles and there is not only one kind of profile of migrant smugglers. Let’s say the smugglers that let me approach them are absolutely normal people. They even somehow care about migrants. I mean, they consider themselves service providers, so they do not force anyone to leave and do not use force, they just offer service in a kind of acceptable way. The people I spoke to used to have a balance in the numbers of migrants and the equipment they used. When it comes to real criminal people, I do not think they would let any journalist approach them.
How does a person become a people smuggler?
If you are an expert of the sea, desert, trucks or cars you can easily get a role in the game. But again, there is not only one way to be a smuggler, there are several ways. You can do it in a kind of human way. I have to say though that I am talking about smugglers not about traffickers. So if you have a car, a boat and are an expert in the desert or at sea you can enter the business as any normal business. Many smugglers are absolutely normal people with ethics and do not use violence against migrants and just do their jobs, even though they are breaking the law.
Are there more smugglers or traffickers in Libya?
It’s about half and half. It started in the beginning of 2015. Before that it was still normal smuggling, even though the conditions were very (already) bad for some migrants.
How can these people smugglers work in such industries in Libya amid militias and terrorist groups?
If you have connections in your area you do it. I mean you work in your area not anywhere else, so you are safe and nobody is going to touch you.
What is the current route for boats to sail from Libya?
The main hub is in Sabratha and the big networks on the coast are people from Sabratha and from Zawiya. The destination is Italy, as a transit country, then they want to go to northern Europe.
Why is Zuwarah is no longer the starting point towards Europe?
It has not been since August 2015. The masked men did very great job and stopped the irregular immigration from Zuwarah.
What is the relationship between Islamic groups in city of Sabratha and the smugglers? Are they enemies or there is some kind of harmony between them?
It is like any mafia network – it is not about religion. It is about money and they want to take money out of this business, just as it is in other militias simply business to collect money and buy weapons. There is no difference between ISIS and other militias in Sabratha.
You mean all of them work in business, including ISIS?
They have the same technique and the same goal to make money. There are some groups of ISIS working in this business, as well as other militias.
There are stories that some smugglers do not sail towards Italy, but they sail towards Alburi petrol platform, which is protected by the Italian navy, then they unload passengers in inflatable boats and call the navy to take (the migrants). Is that true?
It is true. The smugglers work with very cheap equipment and they can only sail a very short (distance) at sea.
Does the lack of cooperation between Italy and Malta delay rescuing boats that are sinking?
That used to be the case, but then Italy and Malta signed an agreement. The Maltese forces can also rescue people but they bring them to Italy, there is less conflict about migrants between the two countries. Now it is much more about the Italian coast guard and European Forces. In the last three years there were many faces. Now we have European forces which are mainly military forces, we have the Italian coast guards, who are very cooperative and we have the humanitarian boats like Astrela from Spain, Germany and Holland etc.
How do you assess the performance of the Mediterranean countries? Why do not they stop illegal immigration in the desert before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea?
The countries involved in the desert do not really care because they have their own issues and mafia people to run the business and the governments are not concerned about immigration. Europe, in my point of view, is not concerned about what happens before the Mediterranean. The issue the European countries do really care about is to stop migrants at sea and push them back to Africa. This should be a long-term cooperation, even it just means issuing visas. Because if you close all the borders people will forcefully enter and if you allow them to enter, many would go to Europe but then return to their countries because it would not be what they expected.