Democracy & Justice

Who Is Italy's Ally in Fighting Irregular Migration? A Gang of Human Traffickers

The Libyan Coast Guard in Zawiyah is a criminal organisation that the UN has formally accused of being part of a militia involved in human trafficking. Yet for Italy, Libya remains an ally in the fight against irregular immigration.

by Flaminia Delle Cese
Migrants assisted by UNHCR on 14 March 2018 after being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and brought to Tripoli. (Image: UNHCR)

In addition to human trafficking, the public prosecutor of Catania has said that the Zawiyah Coast Guard is also involved in stealing and smuggling oil, which causes Libya to lose 750 million dollars per year.The UN has imposed sanctions against six traffickers, including al Bija and Mohammed Koshlaf, mentioned in this article.

Despite this, Libya continues to enjoy a close relationship with Italy, as the two remain allies in the fight against irregular immigration.

The Temeteron

The Temeteron tanker is an impressive vessel: a 110-meter-long tanker that can hold up to 4,600 tons. In 2016, the Temeteron often transited off the Libyan coast, travelling continuously from the Mediterranean Sea to the port of Odessa, Ukraine, or Russian ports on the Black Sea.

On 28 June 2016, the Temeteron was intercepted by the Zawiyah Coast Guard just before it left Libyan territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. Following this interception, researchers Mark Micallef and Tuesday Reitano began to refer to the Zawiyah Coast Guard as the "Zawiyah refinery Coastguard."

According to Reitano’s and Micallef’s research, the Coast Guard operating out of Zawiyah, equipped with two crafts, intercepted 5,707 migrants out of 10,989 migrants stopped in total by the Libyan Coast Guard between January and June 2017.

On 28 June 2016, the Zawiyah Coast Guard forced the Temeteron to the port of Tripoli, where both the tanker and its crew fell under control of the Libyan Navy. The following day, during a press conference, the Libyan Navy spokesman Ayoub Qasim claimed that 5,227 tons of smuggled diesel, stolen from the Zawiyah refinery, had been found on board the tanker.

The crew members of the Temeteron - five Ukrainians, three Russians and one Greek - were detained and remained in Libyan prisons until 2 March 2017. Ships like the Temeteron that are alleged to carry illicit cargo, often travel off the coast of Zawiyah. Yet local authorities rarely carry out controls.

The reason is simple: the Coast Guard of the city is part of a criminal organisation that smuggles diesel. According to UN reports, that Coast Guard is also involved in human trafficking. Migrants and diesel, together with crude oil, are the few Libyan "commodity exports." Controlling these markets, in fact, means controlling the country's exports.

Refinery protected by the Coast Guard

The Azzawiya Oil Refinery Company is a state-owned refinery, started in 1974. It is the largest refinery in Libya, with a maximum capacity of 120,000 barrels of crude per day. It is controlled by the National Oil Company (Noc), the state-owned company that manages gas and oil.

The Noc is the only authority in Libya that can grant approval for the exportation of Libyan goods. Since May 2014, Mustafa Sanalla has been the head of Noc. On 18 April, during a conference on oil and fuel theft in Geneva, Sanalla claimed that Libya loses 750 million dollars each year: according to him, 30-40% of the oil and crude imported or produced by Libya "is stolen."

In other words, it is exported without an authentic Noc authorization, and therefore the Libyan state company is not able to collect any taxes from this sale. Therefore, the only ones who benefit from this sale are the criminals who belong to the cartel that brings oil and crude out of Libya. The buyers, who pay these products on average one third of their market price, are mainly Italian, Spanish, Tunisian, Turkish and Russian.

The Libyan mafia of the Koshlafs and al-Bija

The Temeteron incident is part of the "Dirty Oil" investigation by the public prosecutor of Catania. The investigation determined the percentage of Libyan products that ends up in Italian refineries and arrested seven people. As revealed by the investigation, in order to disguise the smuggled shipments, traffickers falsify the diesel’s certificates of origin, or apply fake Noc stamps of authorisation.

Because of this, the documents allow traffickers to unload the products in any European refinery. Daphne Caruana Galicia, a Maltese journalist who was murdered with a car bomb on 16 October, had discovered this smuggling business on her island: Malta is the site where most of this forgery takes place.

The IRPI investigative journalism center followed up her work after her death, investigating those involved in this business in Malta. The IRPI investigation was published with the Daphne Project, a project of collective journalism that was created in order to follow up on what the murdered journalist had discovered or foreseen.

An investigative trail leads from Malta to Libya. While a part of the criminal organization was arrested following the Dirty Oil investigation and is currently in Libya, many members of the Libyan group are still free. At least for the whole of 2016-17, their organisation was among the most powerful of the 150-kilometer coastline that goes from the border with Tunisia to Zuwara.

Walid Koshlaf and Mohammed Koshlaf (called al-Qasseb) are at the heads of this organisation. One of their lieutenants, Abdurahman al-Milad, called al-Bija, was accused last summer by the Washington Post and Middle East Eye of being the head of the Coast Guard, whose officers are paid and trained by the Italian government to stop migrants.

As stated in the UN report of 1 June 2017, al-Bija and other coastguards members "are directly involved in the sinking of migrants' boats using firearms." The UN report also affirms that Mohammed Koshlaf "opened a rudimentary detention center for migrants" in the Zawiya refinery (in this report by Amnesty, it is possible to see a satellite photo of the centre on page 28). Some of the migrants "rescued" by al-Bija are often taken to Koshlaf’s detention center.

In December 2016, the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL), together with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published a report detailing the list violations committed in Libyan migrant detention centers, including the one at Zawiya. Unicef reports that it is necessary to pay some sort of of ransom to the prison guards (i.e. the militias) to get out of such centers.

Why was Temeteron stopped?

The Temeteron, which has smuggled shipments for a long time (cigarettes in 2004, and then diesel in 2015, for which it was stopped in Greece), had never been stopped by the Libyans before 28 June 2016. So what was different on that day? The answer is related to Fahmi Ben Khalifa, the man who, on behalf of the Koshlafs, managed the smuggled diesel batches that were headed first to Malta and then to Italy.

Ben Khalifa did business with two Maltese men, Darren and Gordon Debono (who are not relatives) and a Sicilian linked to Cosa Nostra, Nicola Orazio Romeo. The latter has been in prison since August 2017. Unlike the Libyan branch of the organisation, the international cartel has no clan-based ties: smugglers and suppliers are only united by profit.

As the relationship between Darren and Gordon got worse, Darren and Ben Khalifa tried to take control of the Temeteron, which is similar in size to the tankers generally used by Gordon. Their attempt failed, however, and Gordon eventually managed to buy the ship.

Traffic of diesel and traffic of migrants are therefore two sides of the same coin. If the fight against traffickers also aims to create stability in Libya, as stated in several public occasions by the minister of the interior, Marco Minniti, then the strategy has to be revised.

Italy has legitimized the existence of this Coast Guard and has let it benefit from trafficking both diesel and migrants. Investigators thus end up arresting members of the same cartel with which the Italian Home Office has signed a collaboration agreement.

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