In lawless Libya, human smuggling right out in the open

CBC News catches up with a human smuggler in coastal Libya who says he has been at it for almost nine years and hasn't lost a ship. Still, it's a dicey business when you have to teach your co-pilot how to use a compass just hours before launch.

'I never had to hide it from anybody,' says 27-year-old smuggler, in the business for 9 years

Illegal immigrants, abandoned by traffickers in a desert area between Sudan and Libya on their way to Mediterranean ports, wait inside a military base in Dongola. (REUTERS)

Human smuggling is a big business these days along Libya's nearly lawless coast.

Migrants can spend hundreds of dollars and more to make the costly voyage across the Mediterranean for a toehold in Europe. And this year, more than 1,800 have died, almost five times more than in the same period a year earlier.

Along the way, there are plenty of people who profit, such as 27-year-old Zubeir of Zuwara, a port city about 100 kilometres west of Tripoli. 

CBC News caught up with him one night, while he was watching the weather forecast on a Tunisian channel, hoping to send 80 migrants to sea after three weeks of bad weather. 

It is quarter to 10 and Zubeir, not his real name, is rolling a joint while assessing the forecast.

"People arriving is very important to us," he says. "If they don't, at some point they'll know it's not worth the risk." And he would then lose clients.

The story is featured on the Sunday edition of The World This Weekend at 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. AT, 7:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Radio One.

Good weather, in a nutshell, is good for business. And he blames the hundreds of dead at sea on money-addicted newbies who operate recklessly.

Zubeir maintains he has never lost a vessel, and he wants to keep it that way. 

About halfway through the forecast, he puts his thumbs up. "It's a go! Tonight is the night."

Then comes task number two: teaching the boat's co-captain how to use a compass.

Abdullah used to go out to sea in his native Senegal to fish. Tonight, his job is to navigate the dinghy from Libya to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean, about 300 kilometres away. Or anywhere in international waters where the migrants will be rescued by European coast guards.

In exchange for his services, Abdullah gets to ride for free, instead of paying the $500 ticket. It is enough of an incentive to take his chance at co-piloting a boat with 80 passengers. 

Zubeir sets the compass on a pillow and points at the needle. The two men spend half an hour going over the plan: where to go, when to call and what to do next.

It's a familiar routine for Zubeir. Growing up on the beach, he had a front-row seat on the smuggling show. He says watching migrants embark on dinghies was a common sight, and so was seeing their boats get washed up right back on Libyan shores.

He took to the business at 18 after connecting a group of Ghanaian migrants he'd met to a smuggler, who in turn gave him a cut. It seemed easy enough, plus it was good money.

After the Libyan revolution, Zubeir moved up the ranks. He sends only a few vessels a year, but makes up to $ 24,000 for every boat, and scoffs when told local authorities claim they don't know what he and a few dozen others in town are up to.

Illegal migrants are seen on a boat after being rescued by the Tunisian navy off its coast earlier this month. Most of these boats are leaving neighbouring Libya for the Italian island of Lampedusa. (REUTERS)

"Over the past 10 years, I never had to hide it from anybody ... friends, family, it's been absolutely fine."

By 2 a.m., his house has emptied out. Friends take turns driving migrants to the beach. Zubeir is the last one to go, making sure no migrant, or piece of equipment, has been left behind. 

But at the beach, with thunder and lightning off in the distance, the trip is called off at the last minute. Tomorrow would be another day.