/ 28 July 2015

Trading in souls: Inside the world of the people smugglers

Palestinian migrants in a police building in Rafah. Egyptian naval forces arrested the would-be immigrants and sent them back to Gaza
Palestinian migrants in a police building in Rafah. Egyptian naval forces arrested the would-be immigrants and sent them back to Gaza

Abu Hamada, a 62-year-old civil engineer from the outskirts of Damascus, has not built much for several years, and yet by his own calculations he has earned about $2.34-million in the past six months. That is because since moving to Egypt after the Syrian civil war started, this Syrian-Palestinian refugee has found a far more lucrative line of work – smuggling.

As the recent discovery of two unmanned “ghost ships” carrying hundreds of migrants to Italy showed, refugees are looking to cross the Mediterranean in ever more desperate ways, amid what the International Organisation for Migration now believes is the world’s largest wave of mass migration since the end of World War II.

And newcomers to the smuggling trade are cashing in. Barely a year after starting business, Abu Hamada is the kingpin of the Syrian smuggling network in Egypt. The majority of Syrians attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy are likely to sign up with one of his web of brokers. From May until October, the period when the weather allowed for smuggling missions, Abu Hamada’s men organised on average two trips a week, each earning him a profit of at least $46 000.

Critics say he is profiting from people’s misfortune, indifferent to their suffering and in some cases causing it. Some of his team’s clients were on a now-notorious ship that sank near Malta in early September, killing more than 300 people. “They are the worst kind of humans,” says one of the gang’s would-be passengers, Osama, who was arrested – fortunately, as it turned out – as he waited to board the doomed vessel. “They don’t value anything apart from money.”

But holding forth in the small hours of a recent morning, during what he says is his first interview, Abu Hamada claims he’s the good guy. “What’s wrong with making a profit?” he says, sitting with some of his assistants in a tea garden in an affluent Cairo suburb. “If I’m making money at the same time as helping my countrymen, what’s the problem? I’m the only person people can trust in this business.”

The European Union has scaled back its Mediterranean rescue operation, in the hope that a reduction in the number of coastguards will discourage migrants from attempting a voyage that claimed more than 3 000 lives in the past year. But such a strategy underestimates the demand for smugglers such as Abu Hamada. Last year, he trafficked an estimated 10 000 people, and this year’s figure could be even higher.

There is no one way of smuggling people across the Mediterranean. Eritreans, Syrians, Palestinians and Egyptians are among the many different migrants attempting to get to Europe from Egypt. Interviews with two land-based smugglers, three ship-owners and dozens of migrants suggest different communities have different networks, and that the methods and terminologies used change from country to country, smuggler to smuggler, and even from week to week.

‘You don’t need to find them. They find you’

No single person controls every aspect of every trip. Foreign brokers such as Abu Hamada and his deputy and nephew Abu Uday (both are known by their nicknames) need Egyptian colleagues to carry out certain aspects of the operation, particularly at sea. But Abu Hamada is the central player in his network, the man through whom all money passes. Without him, his trips would not happen.

The process starts far from the sea itself. Individual migrants approach one of Abu Hamada’s Syrian brokers in their neighbourhood and fix a price. “It’s very easy to find someone – everyone knows a smuggler or two,” says Mehyar, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who successfully made the trip last year. “In fact, you don’t need to find them. They find you.”

Abu Hamada’s men claim they charge a fixed price of $1 900 a person, but in reality the price fluctuates. Some pay as much as $3 500, some as low as $1 500. The more you pay, the sooner you get to the boat.

All the money will eventually flow into a central fund controlled by Abu Hamada, from which he pays for the ship, the crew, his staff, transport costs and other expenses. But first the migrant usually pays the money to a third party trusted by both sides. Only when the passenger successfully reaches Italy should the third party release the money to Abu Hamada.

“If the ship sinks or it goes to Greece, we lose all the money,” says Abu Uday, an engineer, like his uncle, in a past life. “It’s harder to get to [the rest of] Europe from Greece.”

But if the migrants arrive safely, there is money to be made – and not just for Abu Hamada. Each boat of 200 passengers gives him a turnover of about $380 000. Of this, he spends half on the boat and about $70 000 on the various costs related to bussing migrants to the sea. A further $30 000 goes on housing the migrants in the days before their departure. The boat crew get $15 000, as do the brokers that find the migrants. After a few extra costs, Abu Hamada is usually left at the end of every trip with a profit of about $45 000-$50 000.

To get to the ship, migrants must first reach the port of Alexandria, Egypt’s second city and the hub of the smuggling networks on the Egyptian coast. A few are driven there directly, but Abu Hamada’s clients are given a time and place to meet and make their own way there.

Once in Alexandria, the migrants are hustled into shabby apartments in suburbs such as Palm Beach and Miami. Their names are evocative of more prosperous places, but in reality these are gloomy forests of tower blocks. And it is here that Abu Hamada block-books dozens of apartments, all summer long, for use as a holding bay for his clients before they leave for the ships.

“You stay two or three days there,” says Osama, the Syrian refugee who tried to travel with Abu Hamada this year. “Then they come and put a big group of you in buses.” Under cover of darkness, these buses drive the migrants for several hours to remote spots along the Mediterranean coast. If all goes to plan, which it often doesn’t, they then board dinghies at the beach. The dinghies take them to a larger vessel that carries them, hopefully, to Italy within a fortnight.

But few make the ship on the first attempt. The weather, the police and the coastguards can all force the buses to return to Alexandria for another night or more. One Syrian interviewee said she has had 30 false starts, and after each attempt she was brought back to Alexandria. She is still stuck in Egypt.

The buses are organised by an Egyptian – known in the business as the monassek or dalil – and it is at this point that Abu Hamada’s and Abu Uday’s control of proceedings begins to loosen. As foreigners, they say their relationship with the Egyptian authorities is weak. But, they claim, to get several busloads of illegal migrants to the shore, let alone to international waters, some level of government complicity is required. Which is where the monassek comes in.

They say the monassek is paid by Abu Hamada – about $340 a passenger – to shepherd the migrants from the apartments to the large smuggling vessel that lies several kilometres off shore, and to deal with any government officials who might cause problems.

“We can’t bring them ourselves,” says Abu Uday, who does most of the talking for his uncle. “So we’re forced to go to the Egyptian middleman. He takes them from the apartments to the specific beaches, according to the deal with the government. Then he takes the people from the beaches on little boats to the bigger boat.”

Talk to most Egyptian middlemen and ship owners, and they will deny having a relationship with police and coastguards. “Of course we don’t. The Egyptian security is very keen to fight this sort of thing,” says one Egyptian smuggler, who gives his name as Captain Hamdy.

“There is no coordination with the coastguards, and people who say otherwise are lying,” adds a prominent fisherman in a coastal town known for its smugglers. “And the proof is that there are more than 10 trials ongoing for people involved in the smuggling business.”

Egypt’s interior ministry spokesperson, General Hany Abdel Latif, also strenuously denies the accusation. A smuggler “is a criminal outlaw who just wants to defraud people, take their money, and it doesn’t make any difference to them if the people die,” he told the Guardian. “Do you expect credibility from such a person? We already arrested many of them and the others will be busted [soon].”


But Abu Uday is adamant that, in his network at least, it is the monassek’s job to ensure the complicity of relevant government officials. “They just take care of one thing,” he says. “They deal with the authorities.”

In exchange for allowing smugglers to leave from certain points, Abu Uday claims, officials are paid up to 100 000 Egyptian pounds (about $13 800) a trip. By agreement with the smugglers, police arrive after most of the migrants have managed to leave the beach. At that point, the remaining passengers are arrested and taken for a few days’ detention in police cells, to maintain the pretence that Egypt is playing its part in ending the smuggling trade.

“It’s normal that if I want to smuggle 300 [migrants],” says Abu Uday, “the authorities will take 50 and let 250 go, to show the Italians that they are doing some work.”

Migrants report similar stories. Three Syrian refugees, Osama, Loai and Tariq, were taken by Abu Hamada’s gang to a beach in August last year. Those who got to the beach first made it to the ship, and later died at sea. Those who got there last – like Osama, Loai and Tariq – were arrested on arrival at the beach. In separate interviews, the trio claimed that the men who helped the police to round them up were the same men who had led them to the water’s edge.

Later, during an interrogation at the police station, Osama mentioned the smugglers by name. Hours later, he got a call from Abu Uday. The police had told the smugglers that Osama had informed on them.

A third Abu Hamada customer, a Syrian refugee who asked to be named as Ahmed, was arrested in a similar way several days later. While in detention, Ahmed claims a coastguard officer confirmed the relationship between the smugglers and the authorities.

“Do you think the smugglers could leave without us knowing?” the officer allegedly told Ahmed. “We know about each trip from the smugglers themselves. Some we leave, some we don’t … We tell them that we have to arrest 80% and let 20% go.”

Each trip, about 300 migrants make it to a large fishing boat, lurking several miles out to sea. The boat belongs to Abu Hamada: for every trip, he pays Egyptian associates – usually fishermen known by nicknames such as “the Whale”, and “the Doctor” – to source a new one.

But as a Syrian-Palestinian, the boat cannot be listed in his name, and in the eyes of the law, it still belongs to the Egyptian he “buys” it from. Abu Hamada never sees the ship, and he does not choose its crew – who are usually out-of-work fishermen – or when and where it leaves from. In coordination with the monassek, it is the boat-owner who decides where a trip should leave from.

“The Syrian pays the money for the boat, but I handle everything else,” says one Egyptian boat owner who deals with Syrian gangs. “I find and pay the captain, I find the boat, and it’s my name on the boat documents.”

‘The GPS is the captain’

What this means is that Abu Hamada, exploiter of migrants, is sometimes exploited himself. Of the roughly $380 000 he receives for every trip, he spends about half on what he thinks is a new, steel-hulled boat. His assistants proudly show the Guardian a picture of what they believe to be their latest purchase, a gleaming new vessel, painted green.

But in reality the Egyptian fishermen sometimes use old and faulty wooden boats instead. “The [Egyptian] smuggler will buy any old boat from me because he doesn’t care about its quality,” says one seller of secondhand boats.

Even if a new boat is purchased, the sailors who control it are often loth to use it to get to Italy. The boats that reach Italian waters are often impounded, so smugglers prefer to make the trip using the most expendable vessels. This means the sailors sometimes force the migrants to move from new boats to smaller and older ones several days into their voyage – a frightening and dangerous procedure that risks overloading already rickety vessels. Survivors of the catastrophic sinking in September, which killed more than 300 off the coast of Malta, say the crash occurred after the migrants were asked to change boats.

In the past month a new and still more ruthless tactic has emerged. To avoid being stopped by Italian authorities, smugglers are now presenting their vessels as legal entities until they are within a few kilometres of Italy. Then the crew disembark, forcing the Italian authorities to intervene to save lives.

An Egyptian ship owner involved in the smuggling business told the Guardian that his associates used similar tactics, and often left their vessels in the hands of untrained charges “who don’t know how to sail”.

“They only have GPS,” said the ship owner, who asked to be known as Abu Khaled, from a port on Egypt’s north coast. “So the driver doesn’t have any more sailing knowledge than this. He just follows the arrow. The GPS is the captain.”

Abu Hamada says his crews don’t use this tactic, claims what happens at sea is beyond his control, and expresses regret at the deaths of some of his customers in September. “Why is everyone attacking me?” he asks. “You should be attacking the ship owners. If you want to say they’re trading in souls, you’d be right.” But the way his team treat his clients back on land is hardly any better. Several migrants criticised the exhausting and humiliating process of trying to reach the right departure beach, night after night.

Each evening, migrants are crammed into small buses and driven for hours to whatever beach has been allocated for that day’s departure. Often the journey is in vain. Either the weather or the police force the smugglers to cancel the trip.

If it does go ahead, often there’s only time for some of the migrants to go to sea – usually those who still have the money to bribe the smugglers. The rest are either arrested or driven back to Alexandria, and sometimes forced to remain on board the bus until the following evening’s attempt. “We did this trip five or six times – every day without going back into the flat,” remembers Osama.

Several migrants report being beaten by the smugglers. Two claimed they were robbed by them. A third said their bus was car-jacked by Bedouin tribesmen as it neared a remote beach. “It was one whole month of unfortunate events,” says Osama. “We saw things we never saw in our lives before – even in Syria.”

Britain has all but withdrawn its support for EU-led rescue missions in the Mediterranean, in the belief that sea patrols encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. But such a strategy underestimates the greed of the smugglers and the desperation of the smuggled.

Despite the risks and despite the callousness of their traffickers, Syrian refugees say they would try again and again to cross the Mediterranean with the help of people like Abu Hamada.

The horrors of Syria, and the subsequent prejudice and poverty they face in countries such as Egypt, give them no other choice.

“Why do we keep going by sea?” asks Ahmed. “Because we trust God’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.”

And Abu Hamada is only too happy to oblige. – © Guardian News and Media 2015

  • Additional reporting by Manu Abdo