Ermias Ghermay is a wanted man. Last year alone his gang is said to have made $10 million trafficking people to Europe. Alex Crawford reports from Libya.
The hunt for the world’s most wanted people smuggler took us through some of the most inhospitable places on Earth as well as some of the most dangerous.
We traced the key human trafficking routes used by one of the kingpins and followed the same path through which his network has smuggled thousands of migrants.
We saw the vast expanse of the Sahara desert crossed by hundreds and witnessed the instability across Libya which has created the perfect anarchic conditions for smugglers to flourish.
We (the Sky documentary team of myself, cameraman Garwen McLuckie, director Toby Sculthorp and producer Mike Mawhinney) travelled through a string of no-go areas, where law and order is non-existent and saw how migrants were abused, beaten, humiliated but most of all exploited by almost everyone they came across in their quest to get to Europe.
From the searing hot desert that makes up Kufra in Libya’s south, we followed the smugglers’ trail. We saw the battles still raging in Benghazi and the east as the soldiers there fight Islamic extremists.
And we witnessed the rage and desperation of migrant detainees who had been locked up, some for several months, inside detention centres in Tripoli in the west. We heard the exasperation of the police chief in Zuwara who admitted he knows who the smugglers are but is powerless to stop them.
We were given access to the world’s most comprehensive investigation into people-smuggling – a 700-page document compiled by the force which took on the Italian mafia.
The Italian investigators employed the same techniques used to crack down on the Sicilian godfathers and amassed a mountain of evidence against some of the key human traffickers operating inside Libya.
They managed to identify one of the masterminds as an Ethiopian called Ermias Ghermay and intercepted phone calls between him and his lieutenants.
One recorded phone call directly links Ermias to the sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 – 366 people were killed.
In underwater footage taken by police divers, and made available to Sky News, the bodies can be seen strewn across the wreck.
One migrant has his head trapped through the boat’s railings; a couple are seen lying side by side on the deck and appear to be holding hands; other migrant bodies were alongside the boat on the seabed.
The police recordings depict a ruthless operator whose primary concern is for his human cargo business and the money it makes him.
He can be heard talking to one of his cohorts called John who is based in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The two discuss the Lampedusa deaths as casually as if they are discussing a minor kink in their multi-national trade in humans.
Ermias can be heard blaming the migrants for insisting on crossing the Mediterranean at a time against his judgement – and they are both worried about the impact the sinking is going to have on their reputations and therefore the business.
Ermias is the go-to man for people-smuggling. “Everyone knows his name and his number,” says Gerry Ferrara, the Italian state prosecutor who headed the 18-month-long investigation. But right now, Mr Ferrara admits, the people smuggler he accuses of some of the worst human rights atrocities, is acting with impunity in Libya, beyond the reach of international law.
Mr Ferrara admits he has no idea who his opposite number is in Libya or where in the nation to send his enormous file of evidence which could lead to the arrest of one of the kingpins of people smuggling.
“There is no co-operation in Libya at the moment,” he tells us.
On the smuggling routes we followed through Libya, we witnessed a fractured country with little law and order and where corruption is rife. Witnesses, migrants, survivors, police and border guards all spoke of endemic corruption where it is the smugglers who have the money, the power and the weapons.
Police recordings back this up – with one of Ermias’ lieutenants bragging about bribing jail guards to free migrants who are held in the prisons so they can pay yet more money for the next leg of their trafficked route.
And the cash handed over is extraordinary. Each leg – from Sudan into the south of Libya; from Zuwara on the Mediterranean coastline to Lampedusa; and then on into northern Europe – all demand huge amounts of money … anything from $1,500 (£960) per leg to $3,000 (£1,920).
And right now, the Western politicians’ promises of cracking down on the smuggling gangs and their networks seem fanciful – and certainly unachievable while Libya is such a basket case.