THE BLOG

Hunting the World's Most Wanted People Smuggler

22/07/2015 08:28 BST | Updated 21/07/2016 10:59 BST

I have seen hell and it is in a warehouse in Libya - down a dusty road, behind eight foot high padlocked metal gates on the outskirts of the town of Kufra.

Hidden out of sight, in a suffocatingly hot, bare concrete room, a group of frightened young women are being held by men with guns. Some of the women have been here for more than two months.

Assaned has spent this entire time, on her back in a body cast which stretches from her right toe, up her leg and under her chest. It's now grimy grey but still stiff and unyielding. It prevents her from doing almost everything. She can't sit up. She can't go to the toilet. Her body is imprisoned inside the plaster cast inside this prison. A hell inside a hell. She's sixteen but looks much younger, just a child, now far away from her home and everything and everyone she knows - with eyes, wide with fear and full of pain. And in this wretched place, she has become a statistic - one of the thousands trafficked through Libya. Her aim was to get to Europe - Italy and beyond but she's now trapped and will be held here until her relatives can pay the people smugglers more.

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Alex Crawford with Assaned in a detention centre on the outskirts of Kufra

Assaned - like the other young women who crowd around her, most of them teens, have come from Eritrea and many have travelled on their own. Their families have already spent a relative fortune (between 1,500 to 2,000 dollars) to come this far. They're not rich. But they are desperate. They tell me their mothers sold all their jewellery, all their possessions for this one-way ticket out of their homeland - one of the most repressive regimes in the world. That journey involved first getting to Sudan, hundreds of kilometres often by foot, maybe by vehicle. Once in the capital, Khartoum, they make contact with the smugglers who take money in advance before sending their 'customers' off in rickety trucks across the Saharan desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. In Assaned's case, they were in a convoy of three traversing the desert when they came under fire. The details are sketchy. They're not sure who was shooting at them or why. Some say it was the 'Libyan army', perhaps soldiers from the internationally recognised Libyan government which is nominally in control in this area of the country. Whoever it was, the firefight resulted in their vehicle rolling multiple times and I am told, the smuggler was killed.

Kufra's proximity to the southern Sudanese border has made the town the smugglers' favoured gateway into Libya. And Libya itself, with its instability, fighting and fractured governments (one recognised by the international community and based in the east, and one not and residing in Tripoli) is the perfect breeding ground for exploitative and highly lucrative businesses like human trafficking. The desert borders are long and porous and mostly un-monitored. Our travels through Kufra, to Benghazi and Al Beida in the east, across to Tripoli, Zawiyah and Zuwara along the coast in the west gave us (Sky News documentary unit) a depressing view of the conditions which are making it the smugglers country of choice, and where fortunes are being made at the expense of humans so desperate they will just about do anything to escape. There is corruption at almost every level and at virtually every point along the journey, and the booming business which is trafficking, means the smugglers can buy their way out of every problem - paying for the release of prisoners, paying for boats, paying for vehicles, paying for guns and muscle, paying for politicians to keep quiet.

Hundreds of miles away in Palermo, the Sicilian State prosecutor Gerry Ferrara sucks on his cigar over a double expresso and contemplates his hunt for one of the smuggling Kingpins. One of the most prolific smugglers and one of the most successful is a man called Ermias Ghermay. They're calling him the 'invisible man' in these circles: he's everywhere and his fingerprints are on everything - but there's no known photo of him. All the investigators have to go on is a police photofit compiled from those who've survived the smuggling journey and who finally feel empowered to give details. Ghermay is meant to be about forty, short and stocky - and he's now filthy rich from his trade in humans and hiding out in Libya beyond the reach of international law. 'These people (migrants) are just meat to him,' Ferrara says, 'They are just a business and he doesn't care for them at all. He just cares about the money'.

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Alex Crawford with a senior Libyan government official, in a detention centre in Zawiyah

Ferrara is responsible for the most comprehensive investigation ever done into people smuggling through Africa. Over the past 18 months he's amassed a mountain of evidence against Ghermay - mostly through phone tapping. The recorded calls have revealed an extensive network run by Ghermay with branches in Sudan, throughout Libya, Italy and through northern Europe. The money is always paid in advance and further money is extorted along every leg of the route. The migrants talk of being tortured, beaten and fed little while they're held in appalling conditions in detention centres, which are unmonitored and where the guards with guns hold all the cards.

The smugglers are so brazenly confident, they brag about their reputations. When a migrant boat sank in October 2013 killing 366 people on board, phone taps revealed Ghermay and his cohort in Khartoum chatting gaily about the impact the tragedy could have on their business. The men were worried about the negative impact the disaster might have on their reputation for smuggling.

The current Prime Minister in Tripoli, Khalifa al Ghweil, sat opposite me during an interview and told me (with a straight face) that there was a 'small' smuggling problem in the capital - but his police were doing all they could to combat it. I found it difficult to square the European Union's declaration that Libya is all but bankrupt with some of the gleaming shops on display in the capital. The Tripoli beach was packed with sun seekers using jet-skis and playing beach ball. Where is this money all coming from? Yet the city is considered too dangerous for embassies to operate here. The kidnap threat is so high most governments have pulled out and warn their nationals against travelling here. Many news organisations and aid agencies take a similar view. There is no rule of law and much of the state infrastructure is crumbling with government employees complaining about not being paid. And it's here in Tripoli where the Italian investigators traced Ghermay to, where they believe he's living and from where he manages his multi-national human trafficking business. And it's here he will carry on operating, safe in the knowledge he can't and won't be caught - no matter the protestations and political pledges to crack down on the gangs and the networks. Because Libya is anarchic and that means the smugglers can operate with impunity.

'People Smuggler: World's Most Wanted' is on Sky One at 10 p.m. on Wednesday 22 July and on Sky News at 9pm on Thursday 23 July. Also available on Skynews.com, plus Catch Up.