Abdulkabir and five of his friends, all from Niger, walked for hours over rocky hills and sandy paths to cross into southern Libya, without meeting a single border guard. Safely over the border, they now feel no need to hide.
Libya’s southwestern tip in the Sahara bordering Algeria and Niger has become an open door for illegal migrants from sub-Saharan countries heading for Europe, with the chaotic government in Tripoli appearing to have abandoned all control.
The revolt that overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi three years ago emptied Libya’s arsenals, flooded the region with guns and dismantled much of the state apparatus, giving well-organised smuggler networks the run of the frontier.
“We crossed by foot. There was no army or police,” said Abdulkabir, waiting with his friends for a smuggler to bring them to Ghat, the first town in Libya. They camped near an unpaved road that leads straight to the nearby Libyan passport control post, but no patrol disturbed them.
According to the Italian coast guard, at least 50,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy by boat so far this year, already far exceeding the 40,000 who arrived in the whole of 2013. Most came over land from Sub-Saharan Africa, via Libya.
It has been always a challenge to seal Libya’s more than 2,000 km long southern border, but since Gaddafi’s fall it appears few are even trying. Tripoli, some 1,300 km to the north, has reduced funding to border troops as it grapples with a budget crisis due to protests that shut down oil exports.
“The border is open day and night. Anyone who wants can cross it. There is no control,” said Mohamed Abdel-Qadir, head of Ghat’s town council. “Most (smugglers) are armed people, some of them drug dealers, some trade in weapons, goods and illegal migrants.”
Border officials say up to 200 Africans cross the Ghat border strip every day, most headed north to the Mediterranean coast for the onward trip to Europe by boat.
In Ghat, a detention centre has been built to house migrants caught trying to cross the frontier. But these days it stands empty and derelict: the local authorities say they are being given no money to run it.
Instead, African migrants walk around the town unchallenged. They live in empty houses and queue every morning on the main street seeking jobs. Police cars drive by without stopping.
“I came here to look for a job because there is nothing in Niger,” said a man from northern Niger who gave his name as Mussa. He left behind his wife and three children.
The human traffickers also don’t bother to hide much. “Which police or army are you talking about?” said a smuggler after putting six migrants from Niger on his Toyota pickup.
“I don’t have a job so I have to make a living,” said the smuggler, one of the Tuareg nomads who dominate the region. He agreed to be filmed but asked not to be named.
Operating as part of a network, he drives the Nigeriens to Obari, some 250 km away, where a colleague takes them to Sabha, the next town as they head north toward the Mediterranean coast.
He is not worried about bumping into a patrol: “I have friends in the police and army,” he said.
“THE BORDER IS OPEN”
Not only do smugglers guide migrants north into Libya, they also ship goods such and petrol and wheat south into sub-Saharan Africa or west into Algeria, profiting off the lavish state subsidies that keep such goods cheap in Libya.
Weapons are also shipped south, and Western diplomats worry southern Libya is becoming a haven or transit point for fighters heading in all directions, towards conflict zones in Egypt, Syria, Sudan or Mali.
When asked whether militant fighters were crossing the border, the Tuareg smuggler said: “Look, the border is open. You can do what you want. Smugglers, drug dealers, al Qaeda, anyone who wants can come. There is no police.”
Algeria has closed the land border to Libya and tightened controls, but an Algerian official said it was difficult to coordinate with the Libyan side. On the eastern border, Egypt has limited road traffic to Libya.
Libya’s army and police, still in training, are no match for the armed smugglers. An Interior Ministry force to combat illegal migration has around 150 men covering a stretch of border 600 km (400 miles) long, according to officers.
“I’ve thought about resigning because we can’t do the job properly,” said a senior officer while walking on a paved road used by Libyan and Algerian forces at the joint border.
“This is a main trail for illegal migrants,” he said, pointing to a rocky path littered with shoes and water bottles left behind by border crossers.
His force, supported by army posts spaced every few dozen km (miles) along the border, relies on decade-old Kalashnikovs and has only a few satellite phones to coordinate action. If Europe is worried about the migrants, it should do more to help equip and train the guards, he said.
“The European Union always talks about training and support for us, but they just talk, talk, talk,” said the officer, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
One army soldier, based in a camp perched between sand dunes, said he had attended a training course in Turkey where he learned how to use a satellite monitoring system – which Libya doesn’t have. Tripoli has signed a deal with an Italian firm to install such a system but town mayor Abdel-Qadir said nothing has happened so far in the Ghat region.
He said Libya’s government had imported Land Cruisers badly needed to monitor unpaved desert border paths, but officials kept them in Tripoli for their own use.
“We’ve asked for help from the United Nations, international groups in Libya,” he said. “But there is no international, not even local support. Nothing has materialised on the ground.”