f or many, the Mediterranean is the last leg in a journey of horror. An estimated 90 per cent of migrants reaching the EU have passed through smuggling gangs, paying anywhere between $3,200 to $6,500 for passage. In West Africa, they are trafficked through smuggling hubs such as the city of Agadez, in Niger. From there, they are ferried in densely-packed pickup trucks across the Sahara desert, unwittingly shadowing the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade, before crossing into Libya.
The Horn of Africa trail is fuelled by Eritrea, among the world’s fastest-emptying states, where traffickers deal in citizens fleeing poverty, persecution and military conscription. Migrants are shuttled through outposts in Sudan and across the border to Libya, where they are held in camps on the coast. Syrians, meanwhile, may find themselves exported south through Jordan and Egypt, before either crossing the border directly, or threading upwards through Sudan to Libya.
For those with money, the journey can take days. Those without must move in stages, at risk of abduction, extortion, forced labour, or prostitution. Migrants routinely recount tales of beatings, abuse, and rape, or of being held for months by armed gangs until their families raised enough money to secure their release. Others may find themselves traded to rival groups. In April, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned migrants in Libya were being bought and sold openly in modern-day slave markets, a sign of how normalised the trade has become.
What links these stories is where they end: held captive in Libya, waiting for a seat in a boat. Migrants tell of being forced – sometimes at gunpoint – to board dangerously overfilled boats, with little food or water and too few lifejackets to go around. Stacked to capacity, these battered dinghies and exposed wooden ships are then pushed out into the waves, often with barely enough fuel to reach international waters.
“Someone is given the task of steering and the smugglers will say ‘just head for that light out there, that’s Italy,’ and off they go,” says MacGillivray. “Then they find the light out there is actually an oil platform just inside Libyan waters. And it’s at that point that the fuel runs out and the boat starts taking on water.”