The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Mark Micallef is the director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, where he leads research about smuggling and trafficking networks based on fieldwork conducted in Libya, Niger, Chad, Mali, Algeria, and Sudan. With a background in investigative journalism, Micallef has been engaged with irregular migration from Africa to Europe for more than 15 years. As a journalist, he reported extensively from Libya, both before and after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi as well as during the 2011 revolution.
Contrary to the simplistic portrayals by politicians and much of the media, the business of people smuggling is both geographically varied and ever-changing, explains Mark Micallef. It is a sector that is constantly responding to trends and events, such as a new law in Niger and the global Covid-19 pandemic.
To what extent would you say those in mixed migration flows globally depend on human smugglers to move, and has this changed much in the last decade? What trends do you see?
It depends very much between different territories. The harder it is to travel, the more the dependence on human smugglers. We can see this in different areas. Prior to 2017, for instance, in the Aegean route, there were legs where the involvement of smugglers was rather light, and which, however, became much more consistent as European states started implementing various border controls because, ultimately, that’s the point of contracting the smuggler: to help you go through obstacles, very often borders or other obstacles put in place by states to try to regulate mobility.
In more difficult places such as such as Libya, for instance, a smuggler is there also to navigate the context. So the barriers there are not necessarily put in place by a state, or different administrations, but [people use smugglers] to navigate the difficulty of the territory, and that hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s become more difficult.
If we look at a place like Niger, for instance, there we see that even though migrants always needed to use the help of smugglers or drivers that cross the desert because, again, there was a difficulty to navigate the territory, now we’re seeing smugglers having to intervene much earlier in the journey because human smuggling has been criminalised since 2015, effective in 2016, and therefore, we’re seeing more activity that can be classed as smuggling along that particular route, even though the overall number of migrants using this route has diminished.
Do you have any estimates or clues to the size of the industry globally, in terms of monetary value?
We’ve done some estimations, localised estimations, in terms of the size of specific networks, which are now dated, but we’ve never tried to tackle a comprehensive evaluation. It’s sometimes done by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and other organisations trying to take a macro perspective, but for the type of research that we [at the Global Initiative] conduct, I’m not always certain of the usefulness of trying to tackle such a task because I find it’s a very difficult exercise in this very dynamic sector. By the time you’re finished, you’re really describing something that was and that has changed.
Despite the massive public exposure on the issues of irregular movement in recent years, commentators, reporters, and politicians still often describe human smuggling as human trafficking. These are two materially distinct international crimes, and their significant differences are relatively simple to explain. So, is this confusion accidental or deliberate?
No, I don’t think it’s accidental, particularly at the political level. Impatience and wanting to cut corners also play a part sometimes in the speeches of politicians. But I think there’s been a very clear and active attempt to conflate smuggling with trafficking and make smugglers out to be traffickers because essentially it’s easier to sell a tough- on-crime agenda when we’re talking about traffickers than when we’re talking about smugglers. There are some territories where things are blurred. In the Libyan context in particular, there is sometimes a continuum between what is smuggling and what eventually becomes trafficking, or something looking like trafficking. But I don’t think that’s the issue here. I think there’s a political motivation for the conflation.
And to what extent do you think that smuggling and trafficking definitions have been complicated by the violations and rights abuses that have been associated with human smuggling?
Some cases are challenging, particularly in the border areas between Libya, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, where you’ve got a number of kidnapping practices or practices that border between kidnapping, indentured labour, labour exploitation. Very often the issue of consent and the migrants being a willing party in whatever sort of agreements featuring labour is not clear. These agreements typically start with some form of consent, but it’s not clear whether migrants have the full picture of what they’re walking into and then what they walk into tends to be much more onerous, exploitative and abusive than they had anticipated.
We often associate neglect of migrants and refugees, and violations against them, with remote de-populated areas, such as deserts, border areas, forests, or on the seas. But do violations and killings also take place in cities? And can you give us any examples?
Absolutely. In Libya for example a city which is very tightly associated with these sorts of abuses is Bani Walid. Now, by Libyan standards, Bani Walid is a relatively urban town. Some of the abuses reported over the past years have happened bang in the middle of the town, so they haven’t happened in the periphery of Bani Walid, but happened in facilities inside the town. Besides Bani Walid, there have been several reported incidents of chronic abuse in places like Zawiya, even Zuwara, maybe to a lesser extent Misrata. In Niger, particularly in recent years, there have been several cases of reported exploitation in southern towns such as Maradi, the capital Niamey itself, so and so forth. So yes, the more remote an area is and the lesser the footprint of law enforcement, the more the chances of these sort of abuses, but [they are] definitely not only exclusive to remote areas.
In Southeast Asia, you’ve got abusive trafficking situations that are happening in cities as well. In Myanmar, and even in Bangkok in Thailand, for instance, you have migrants who end up in abusive situations. This definitely also applies to European places of arrival, including Malta, Italy, and other European countries where, over the years, we’ve seen multiple reports of abuse: migrants being rented out substandard accommodation, migrants being forced into labour, forced into prostitution, trafficking situations, or indentured labour situations in various different forms, including in highly urbanised cities.
To what extent have cities in transit countries become concentrations of human smuggling expertise, in terms of organisation, preparation, or facilitation?
There are certain hubs, certain cities and towns, that become associated with human smuggling and build a certain level of expertise. Typically, it starts as a result of geography, so a town happens to develop that profile because it just happens to be in the right place for a particular flow. But then that in itself generates a momentum in its own right. And, yes, you see networks being developed where a certain logistical expertise or logistical capacity is developed and that in itself then creates its own momentum. Zuwara in Libya is one such centre. Khartoum, for instance, is a great example in East Africa along with Nairobi; both are very important hubs and both are examples of this where you had a historical development of migration flows that then developed a capacity in human smuggling, which in turn created its own momentum.
In the Sahel, I would say Bamako is another example along with towns such as Timbuktu and Gao in the North of Mali. Of course, Agadez in Niger is a key example. Burkina Faso is becoming much more important, as well as different cities in Mauritania of late, and then, of course, you’ve got various places in Algeria. Algiers itself has become more important over recent years, and in Morocco, Rabat is a hub, of course.
What about Europe? Would you classify countries like Italy and Greece and Malta as transit locations in so far that they are not the preferred destination countries for many migrants and refugees?
Yes, but when it comes then to the expertise of smugglers in these countries, it’s different in different areas and it’s usually down to opportunity. So, for instance, if we take the case of Malta, Malta did develop an expertise in smuggling back in the 1990s and early 2000s, where at the time there was a need, basically, for migrants wanting to get out of Malta, to obtain the services of smugglers. But eventually, that died out, especially after Malta joined the European Union and the Schengen zone. Irregular migrants, who still had a status of irregular migrant, could more easily transit to mainland Europe, which was ultimately their target. Then when it comes to places like Italy and Greece, you have the development of a smuggling infrastructure in various different places in both of these countries. In Greece, it started on the islands where people first land with very strong networks: in places like Lesbos connected to Athens for example. From these hubs, smuggling networks are then able to push migrants towards the borders with Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and so and so forth, sometimes connected across that region, all the way to Hungary and Austria.
And then in Italy itself, over two decades, we have seen the significant development of different networks, responding to different flows in the Central Mediterranean itself. Then you’ve got smuggling networks who are at the receiving end of flows coming from Tunisia. Now this has gone up and down over the years, but the connection was never lost. And then you have smuggling networks that are at the receiving end of flows of migrants coming from Libya. And very often, they’re distinct and you’ve got concentrations in different parts of Sicily, in Calabria, in the south of Italy, in Rome, all the way up to places like Milan.
Is there evidence that organised crime, specifically the mafia, is involved?
When it comes to organised criminal activity directly involved in smuggling, not only is the evidence very weak in that area, but to me it would stand to logic that smuggling itself isn’t a very lucrative activity that would attract serious organised criminal activity around it. But there have been overlaps between organised crime and the exploitation of irregular migration in agriculture, for instance, and definitely so in sexual exploitation in various parts of Italy. In Naples, there’s evidence of this and Rome, and in different parts of Sicily, and even in the north.
Do you think migrants and asylum seekers are vulnerable to under-the-radar labour and sexual exploitation in transit and destination cities? And if so, does this mainly occur in cities of the global South?
It definitely also occurs in the global North, particularly in the examples I’ve just been mentioning. You have plenty of examples in various European countries where migrants are exploited, sometimes systematically. In Italy, in Malta, in Greece, in Spain, these are all places where there have been cases of forced labour and forced sexual exploitation. It’s occurring very often in the city, right under the noses of the authorities. Particularly when it comes to sexual exploitation, and there is where you have an overlap with organised criminal activity, because often that sort of activity requires protection.
You have written about how Italy and the EU encouraged an anti-smuggling business to emerge in Libya amongst certain militia groups. How important was this to the steep decline in the numbers of new arrivals in the last two years?
I think it was critical. I think this is the reason why we’ve seen that steep decline since 2017. To this day, various countries insist on trying to explain the decline in terms of the jump in activity by the Libyan Coast Guard, but the data just doesn’t bear this out in any shape or form. You look at the coasts, the activity of Libyan Coast Guard between 2016, 2017, and 2018. Yes, you will see some increased activity, but definitely not in proportion with the decline we saw after 2017 in the Central Mediterranean. The fact is that the massive shift that took place, took place on land, and it can be pinpointed to the events of October 2017, when a war broke out in the coastal town of Sabratha, which at the time was the number one departure point for migrants leaving Libya. Then there were other factors, including, the biggest direct European input in this: the criminalisation of human smuggling in Niger. So while these structural changes were taking place in the coastal areas of Libya, the intervention in Niger had the effect of reducing the flow of migrants crossing from Niger into Libya. And so you need to see these two factors together.
You’ve suggested Libya is using anti-smuggling operations to “launder their reputation”. Can you elaborate?
By 2017, after all the aftermath of the 2014 civil war in Libya, two things became distinctly toxic at the international level, particularly at the European level: one was terrorism and the other one was human smuggling. So, you had a carrot and stick system. One hand, they were being stigmatised and punished and jeopardising the possibility of legitimising themselves for the future through any association with human smuggling. On the one hand, a carrot was being provided through which they had the chance to directly legitimise their operation if they retreated from the protection of human smuggling and started to police it instead. Indeed, they saw it as a chance to launder their reputation.
It was strongly rumoured that Italy was instrumental in financing some militia running the anti-smuggling arrangements. Have you come across more concrete evidence?
I think we came close to the evidence that Italy was involved, but never really hard evidence. But beyond the actual evidence and the smoking gun that Italy was directly involved in brokering a deal with a UN Security Council-sanctioned smuggler, Ahmed Al -Dabashi and his militia, the framework in which these changes were taking place still puts Italy firmly in the frame, in the sense that the Government of National Accord, which was co-opting these militias ultimately, was acting in the framework of the MoU signed with Italy.
Although the impact of Covid-19 and the global response to it is still very ongoing, can you already see any impact on both irregular movements using smugglers and the smuggling industry itself?
Initially, after the pandemic reached North Africa, we saw various internal flows within Libya grind to a halt. We saw movement between Niger and Libya grind to a halt, same thing with Chad and Libya, even though the flow there is not very important. Same again between Sudan and Libya. But then in the weeks after that, we started seeing adaptation. So different routes starting to be used, some smugglers trying to diversify their operations. For instance, in Niger we saw smugglers using routes from Niger to Chad and then back into Libya again, which we hadn’t seen for some time, as well as similar adaptations in Libya. With regards to a surge, or perceived surge of departures that took place more or less at the same time as the Covid crisis erupted in Libya, there was actually no surge. If you look at the numbers of departures in the first quarter of 2020, you should see that the departures in March and April remained within the same levels as the previous months. However, the arrivals in Europe picked up. There was a particular three-to-four-week period between mid-March and the beginning of May in which arrivals picked up. The reason for this was the activity of the Libyan Coast Guard basically ground to a halt in some points as a result of the Covid crisis. Different Coast Guard officials were unwilling to go out on rescue or interception missions, so their activities dropped.
Do you think the longer-term impact of Covid-19 will affect movement generally and the smuggling groups that profit from it, or will it all bounce back to normal within a few months or a couple of years?
How this will evolve over time is a very interesting question. A bit hard to answer obviously because it will draw on a number of macro-economic changes. But the Covid crisis is going to have and is already having a massive economic impact across the globe. North Africa and the Sahel are not shielded from this, quite the contrary, actually. The impact the crisis has had so far on the price of oil has very direct and very immediate implications on the entire region. And so, no, I don’t think that in the coming years we will see a return to the status quo, but we might actually see new push factors, not necessarily of a massive impending new wave of irregular migration the likes of which we had seen in 2015, but there are new push factors on the horizon.
 On 2 February 2017 a memorandum of understanding on development cooperation, illegal immigration, human trafficking, fuel smuggling and reinforcement of border security was signed between Italy’s prime minister and Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord.