Cash handoffs, extortion fuel Mediterranean trafficking

‘Migrants’ at a center in Libya awaiting the trip to Europe. Source. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

PALERMO, Sicily (AP) — Fleeing war, persecution and poverty, migrants desperate to reach Europe are paying thousands of dollars apiece to become pawns in a multimillion-dollar trafficking network that stretches from the Sahara to Sweden.

By the thousands, they’re handing themselves over to abusive smugglers who hold them hostage in wretched conditions in Libya until their families cough up the cash to fund their trips, using companies like Western Union or more often the informal money transfer network known as hawala that is common in much of the Arabic world.

Those payments fund treacherous trips across the Mediterranean that have killed hundreds of people in recent weeks. And even if migrants survive the crossing, the exploitation doesn’t end there: Smugglers, acting more like illicit travel agents than criminal gangs, arrange passage to safe houses in Sicily, buy bus tickets for new arrivals and even accompany their charges to their final destinations north, for thousands of dollars apiece…

Related: UN complains about ‘migrant’ centres in Libya. I’m sure they’ll be right on it.

People-smugglers-Coast-of-LibyaPeople smugglers on the coast of Libya. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times