Europe’s secret services thought they were cracking down on human trafficking and people smuggling when, at 3pm on 24 May 2016, a Tuesday afternoon, Sudanese police forces stormed the ‘Corner Café’ in Aldiem, a neighborhood in Sudan’s capital Khartoum where many Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees live. Here they arrested an Eritrean man sipping espresso and talking on his mobile.[1]

This had been a large-scale operation, with British, Italian and Canadian secret services working in the background. After the arrested Ethiopian had been put on a chartered plane by the Sudanese authorities and flown to Rome, it was celebrated as a decisive blow against human trafficking.

Wanted for years by secret services, 34-year-old Mered Medhanie called himself ‘the General’, like his great role model, Libya’s dictator Gaddafi. The Eritrean is seen as the kingpin of a worldwide network of migrant smugglers and human traffickers, headquartered in Eritrea and active in Sudan, Libya, Italy, Great Britain and across the Atlantic in Canada. Once a resident of Sicily, Medhanie fell under observation of the Italian state prosecution in Palermo as part of investigations against the Italian Mafia.

In 2015, Italy issues an international arrest warrant against him, causing him to go underground, across the Mediterranean to crisis-plagued Libya, where he settles with his wife and children in Tripoli. When the investigators start closing in, he sends his family into exile in Sweden and goes on alone to Khartoum. Sudan’s capital is a known hub for migrant smuggling gangs.[2]

Italian and Canadian investigators have transcripts of tapped phone conversations from his time in Tripoli in 2017, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. In these phone calls with a confidant, the General complains about being ‘stressed’ because he has so much to do and ponders expanding his business to ‘America or Canada’.[3] The state prosecutors also found that he invested the millions earned from smuggling humans into IS-linked terrorist groups in Libya and the Sahel zone.[4]

Sicily’s public prosecutors are also searching for one of Medhanie’s close partners, an Ethiopian named Ermias Ghermay. Both men are considered responsible for the disastrous sinking of a ship with over 950 people on board off the Libyan coast in April 2015.[5] At least 800 people drowned in what is seen as one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean’s recent history, so European investigators started to search for the masterminds.

But in mid-June 2016, when Italian police officers drag a man in Sudanese prison garb from the plane on the runway of Rome-Fiumicino International Airport, it turns out to be the wrong guy. The arrested Ethiopian later tells his Italian lawyer his name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a 29-year-old dairy farmer and refugee. The British Guardian publishes Facebook posts by the General commenting on the false arrest: ‘They made a mistake with his name – but everyone knows he’s not a smuggler.’[6]

The embarrassment was hard to beat. British intelligence officers assured journalists that they had tapped phone calls made by the General from this café. A voice recognition program had confirmed his identity without a doubt.[7] The European investigators must have wondered who exactly was fooling them. Nevertheless, the wrong arrest made public both the investigations against the transnational migrant smuggling rings and the close cooperation between secret services across continents.

European authorities depend on their African colleagues in the fight against migrant smuggling networks.[8] Sudan has had a National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) for such investigations since 2014. Its steering committee includes police and army representatives as well as agents of the secret service NISS.[9] Under pressure from the EU, nearly all states of North Africa and the Sahel zone have created institutions to fight human smuggling networks in recent years. Sudan’s NCCHT is an inter-ministerial workgroup headed by the Ministry of Justice. The German development agency GIZ offers workshops to advise the committee as part of its Better Migration Management project (BMM).

The Sicilian state prosecution has found that many migrant smuggling kingpins are living safely in Sudan’s capital. Researchers of the Sahan Foundation, founded by Somalian intellectuals, and the Inter­governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organization for the Horn of Africa headquartered in Djibouti, published a report in 2016 that gathers all the records on these migrant smuggling kingpins living in Ethiopia, Italy, Sudan and Germany. The researchers looked into phone contacts, recorded conversations between smugglers, and bank transfer excerpts – from Sweden to Dubai to the Horn of Africa. Smartphone snapshots show the Eritrean and Somali kingpins posing, dressed up in gold chains and hip hop fashion – gangster style.

In two large-scale operations between 2013 and 2015, Palermo’s public prosecution had more than two dozen suspected smugglers arrested, most of them in Italy, one in Germany.[10] Many of those arrested came from Eritrea, a former Italian colony, and are part of Mafia-like structures active worldwide that smuggle not just people but also arms and drugs.

Traces keep leading to Khartoum, where kingpins like the General use the Islamic hawala system to brazenly push large amounts of cash back and forth. ‘The ringleaders are also the financial overlords of the trade, coordinating the transport and storage of human cargo by generating the principal revenue for paying off transporters and corrupting law enforcement agents in Ethiopia and Sudan, for renting out armed militia convoys and vast warehouses for the storage of human cargo in transit hubs – notably Ajdabiya, Libya – and for procuring passenger and support boats for the final sea journey launched from coastal locations near Tripoli,’ states the report.[11]

The researchers name examples, such as the hawala money transfer office of a Somali businessman in Khartoum where huge amounts are transacted between Libya’s Mediterranean coast, where most smuggling vessels embark, and Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, where many refugees come from. One Eritrean even offers “first class” packages. Migrants who can afford $30,000 are flown to Singapore or even the Philippines, from where they head to Europe on a Schengen visa. Khartoum’s airport is the hub for these operations.[12]

In a country as closely watched by the secret service as Sudan, it is hard to believe that the authorities know nothing of these criminal activities. The investigators found evidence that influential state officials in all countries along the Horn of Africa smuggling routes – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – are bribed by the kingpins. In the chaos of the Libyan civil war, they are working closely with militias whose income derives from smuggling migrants. Germans are still not sure about the extent of collaboration with officials in Sudan: ‘A big problem are the many smuggling networks,’ reads an internal paper of the German Foreign Office on Sudan dated June 2016, just after Medhanie’s arrest. The Sahan report states that it cannot be ruled out that Sudanese border officials are being bribed to support the human traffickers.[13]

The billion-dollar human trade

Migrant smuggling and human trafficking have turned into a huge industry in recent years. During the investigations against the ‘General,’ Sicily’s state prosecution spoke of millions of euros being earned from migrant smuggling. Medhanie’s latest rate for a passage from Tripoli to Lampedusa was €5,000 per person. ‘Given the scale of the human smuggling business in Libya, there can be little doubt that migrants and refugees have become a commodity fueling the war economy in the region,’ write the Sahan researchers.[14]

Meron Estefanos, Eritrean journalist and director of the refugee organization EIRR, is running a hotline for distressed migrants from her exile in Stockholm, Sweden. Her standard questions include how much they had to pay the smugglers for which route. So far, she has found, the easiest but most expensive way was to be driven by a corrupt army officer from Eritrea’s capital Asmara to Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, because government license plates are not checked at the border. This can cost up to €6,000 per person. In Sudan’s capital, the refugees are handed to the next smugglers, who are also Eritreans. The trip across the Libyan border reportedly costs around €1,800. Here, various militias are in on the business. As in earlier cases on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, they kidnap the refugees and demand ransom money from their families back home. These pay up to €15,000, sometimes more, through various money transfer systems.[15] ‘Those who are allowed to pay a ransom are still lucky,’ says Estefanos. Some victims just disappear without a trace, in which case their families in Eritrea do not get any ransom demands. The Eritrean refugee organization director is alarmed by this tendency: ‘This means the Islamic State is either abducting them as fighters and slave laborers or killing them.’

In April 2015, IS propaganda videos show up online. Several dozen Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees – Christians – are kneeling in the sand somewhere along the Mediterranean coast. They are wearing orange overalls, like the Guantánamo prisoners. Behind them stand masked henchmen with Kalashnikovs and sabers. The IS flag is flying in the wind. The IS fighter who is praying to Allah in Arabic has an English accent. He gives orders. Then they behead the refugees.[16] Later it turns out that three of the decapitated Ethiopians had been deported from the Holot detention center in Israel.[17]

Mafia business: prostitution and drug trade

The videos of the brutal beheadings in the Libyan desert went across the world and slashed the number of Horn of Africa refugees risking the journey through civil war-torn Libya. Instead, they opted for Egypt to reach the Mediterranean. Even though smuggling boats embarking from Alexandria need around 13 days to reach Italy and the route is still dangerous, this is better than getting caught by the IS. Those migrants who still come to Libya are usually from Western or Central Africa. 90 percent reach Libya via Niger.

Mounting evidence shows that the Nigerian mafia is heavily involved in the people smuggling routes from Western Africa to Europe. Its extensive network is also involved in the drug trade and prostitution in Italy.[18] These branches usually intertwine: Nigerian women are forced into prostitution upon arrival in Italy to pay off their debts to the smugglers. The women also smuggle cocaine to Europe for these networks, usually on or inside their bodies.[19] Nigerian mafia gangs are known to run such operations from Colombia to Africa and Europe, all the way to Malaysia. The business is booming: The UN migration agency IOM estimates that 80 percent of the roughly 11,000 Nigerian women who arrived in Sicily in 2016 were human trafficking victims forced into prostitution. The number of women from Nigeria registered by the IOM nearly doubled over the previous year.[20]

Targeted efforts against criminal networks by the EU and its partners in North Africa have caused these intercontinental structures to shift southwards to escape Europe’s growing influence in Africa.

A mere two years after the ‘successful’ arrest of the ‘General’ in Khartoum and his extradition to Italy, the wrong Mered Medhanie, the refugee arrested in his place, is still sitting in prison in Palermo. Eritrean witnesses were flown in from around the world to confirm that this is not the feared human trafficker. Genetic tests with family members were attempted. The case turned into a justice scandal.

Meanwhile, the real ‘General’ Medhanie has found a new home to run his smuggling business risk-free. In summer 2018, he is spotted in the Muyenga neighborhood of Uganda’s capital Kampala, at the Eritrean-owned TNT supermarket, buying cigarettes. A Mercedes SUV with tinted windows and an Eritrean chauffeur is standing outside. Wealthy Eritreans have set up shop along Muyenga’s main road in the last two years. They open hotels, restaurants, saunas, drive big cars and buy property. Their businesses are typical African money laundering enterprises. The Eritrean exile organization Africa Monitors, which researches Eritrea’s smuggling networks, estimates that more than five major Eritrean migrant smuggling rings have settled in Uganda. Most were previously headquartered in Libya or Sudan. Uganda’s corrupt government gives shelter to many criminal networks in Africa. Clients are plentiful. The country houses over a million refugees, among them many Eritreans. Most Eritreans settle as urban refugees in Kampala, often earning money here to rejoin relatives in other parts of the world. Those who have saved enough can book a hotel room, for example, at the Eritrean-owned Savana, and ask for the price of a ticket and a passport. Nowadays, you can even fly from Kampala via Turkey or Eastern Europe to Venezuela or Bolivia to join the South American refugee caravan headed for the USA. The price is $14,000.

  1. Reuters (2016) ‘Whisked to Rome from Khartoum: people-smuggling kingpin or wrong man?’, 13 June |
  2. ‘Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route’ (2016) Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP), February 2016
  3. Nadeau, Latza Barbie (2015) ‘Italy Is Finally Cracking Down on Slave Trade’, Daily Beast, 20 April |
  4. Hughes, Chris (2015) ‘ISIS paid millions by billionaire godfather of people smuggling ring named the ‘General’’, The Mirror, 14 June |
  5. Nadeau, Latza Barbie(2015) ‘Italy Is Finally Cracking Down on Slave Trade’, Daily Beast, 20 April |
  6. Tondo, Lorenzo and Kingsley, Patrick (2016) ‘They got the wrong man,’ says people-smuggling suspect. The Guardian, 22 November |
  7. Reuters (2016) ‘Whisked to Rome from Khartoum: people-smuggling kingpin or wrong man?’ 13 June |
  8. Home Office (2016) ‘Country Information and Guidance Sudan: ‘Sur place’ activity in the UK’, August 2016 |
  9. Bundestags-Drucksache 18/11841’, 4 May 2017 |
  10. ‘Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route’ (2016) Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP), February 2016, p. 18-19 |
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Internal paper of the German Foreign Office (2016) ‘Lage von Flüchtlingen in Sudan’, June 2016
  14. ‘Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route’ (2016) Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program (ISSP), February 2016, p. 18-19 |
  15. Phone interview with Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean exile organization EIRR (Eritrean Initiative for Refugee Rights), Oslo, 1 October 2016
  16. The Telegraph (2015) ‘Islamic State murders 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya’, 20 April |
  17. The Times of Israel, (2015) ‘NGO: 3 killed by IS in Libya had sought asylum in Israel’, The Times of Israel, 21 April |
  18. Gaffey, Conor (2017) ‘The Mafia is Teaming up with Nigeria’s “Viking” Gangsters to Run Sex Rings in Sicily’, Newsweek, 28 June |
  19. Nigerian Documentary (2017) ‘From Benin City to the Shores of Italy: A New Hub of Human Trafficking’, April 2017 |
  20. The Guardian (2017) ‘Number of Nigerian women trafficked to Italy for sex almost doubled in 2016, 12 January |


Dictators as Gatekeepers for Europe Copyright © 2019 by Christoph Links Verlag GmbH. All Rights Reserved.

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