According to the United Nations, 26,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the Mediterranean to Europe last year, most of those coming from sub-Saharan Africa were Gambians. In the past three years, almost 15,000 people lost their lives trying to reach European shores.
Undeterred, young men and women continue to take this route in what the UN’s describes as the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our times.
The UN estimates the illegal trade of smuggling people to be worth more than $35bn, and it is booming.
Despite joint efforts by police forces from Europe and Africa, few smugglers have been arrested or prosecuted.
Mohammed Lamine Jammeh, also known as L-Boy, helps many execute this journey. For many, he is a hero. Families save up for years and take loans in order to send one of their children on this journey.
But who profits from this? Do these young men and women know the risks they are taking? How much do they pay for this journey? L-Boy, guides us through the business of human trafficking, and explains why travelling to Europe through Libya or the “backway” as it is known here is an open secret.
Below an adapted transcript of the Al Jazeera broadcast episode, that has been edited for clarity purposes.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque: How many people did you help to cross to Europe?
L-Boy: Around almost 1,000 migrants, from 2011 up to 2016.
Why are there so many people who want to go to Europe?
I think people normally try to go to Europe … because they are hopeless in their country. The unemployment rate is too high. You normally go to school, have your qualifications and you cannot have any job and normally those who should come here to create more employment for us were denied by the ex-president. So that’s why people find it very difficult to survive here, so normally they use the “backway” to go to Europe to find a better life. I call them economic migrants.
When you say “backway” you mean the illegal route to Europe?
I cannot call it the illegal route. You know, when the other way is not possible, you use the other way. ??
You say when the legal way is not possible??
I don’t say the legal way, but the normal way. Initially, we had a shortage of embassies in Gambia, so to have the visa before was very difficult, because the former president was not cooperating very well with the Europeans. So by then, the easiest way to access Europe, was to go through the other way, that is by land, but I cannot call it is an illegal way, because I don’t see it as illegal.
Tell me how did you help these people who want to go to Europe. What exactly did you do?
My role in the process was to be the mediator between them and the agents on the way. Like the agents at Mali, from Mali, you go to Niger. From Niger, at the border there, Agadez. From Agadez to Saba and from Saba to Libya. So I got my own agents, on all those points, and all the money was paid to me. I gave them my own receipt or my card with my telephone number, indicating that they have paid me. So when they reached those points … they just needed to present my card, my card contained my number, and also my signature, so the agents … knew that these people came from me, so directly they would call me to confirm.
Did you help them to cross the Mediterranean?
Obviously, I did that also, because I got an agent that lives in Libya. So when they reached there, that agent was working under me, so I just needed to contact the agent, and said, that the boy has already paid me, so the agent would give them a ticket so they can cross the Mediterranean.
When they made it across, if they made it across, did you help them on the European side?
Obviously, because normally, when they reached there, they still contacted me, to seek advice and also because I have been helping many people, who are already there, they are more experienced, so normally I used to link them with the people that went earlier. Most of them when they reach Italy, they don’t stay there, they find their way to other destinations like Germany, Finland, Sweden, Austria and other places.
But what if they don’t make it alive through the Mediterranean. What if they die on the route?
We have experience, for me specifically, none of my people died or got lost. Normally, what I did experience is that they were at times kidnapped by the Arab people.
‘Kidnapped by Libyans’
So you say that once they are in Libya, they are kidnapped by Libyans??
Yeah, some are kidnapped, you know, normally, those Arabs … they raid their camps. So when they raid the camp, they kidnap some of them, and take them to prison, or normally at their own local prison, so they used to be kidnapped at times. They don’t need anything from them, the only thing they need from them is the money.
So they contacted me, and when they contacted me, I would also contact the parents or their sponsors … and we saw how best to take them out from those prisons or other detentions.
If I wanted to go to Europe, to Italy and Germany, how much would I have to pay you??
So it costs $2,000 to get from Banjul to the coast, shores of Europe?
Yeah, from Banjul up to Italy.
Who were the people that came to you asking to go to Europe?
Normally they were students, and some were unemployed youths, both boys and girls, to be specific most of them were teenagers.
Why do teenagers come to you to go to Europe?
It’s expectations, because they think once they are in Europe, they will have everything. The expectation is high, that when you are in Europe, you’ll have a better life, better living conditions, better education, better food to eat, and all the things.
Which part of the journey is the most dangerous?
From Saba to Tripoli became the most difficult one.
Because it is the desert. Initially, around 2012 to 2011, it only took them four days to move from Saba to Tripoli, but later in 2016, it took them about 3 weeks to enter Tripoli.
How much money have you made doing this?
1,000,000 Gambian dalasi ($21,800)
Do you sometimes feel guilty for what you do?
To feel guilty? I don’t feel guilty. Instead of feeling guilty, I feel proud.
Why do you feel proud?
Because I was helping the hopeless to enter Europe, so when they are in Europe, they become more hopeful, and even [depended on] by their families here. Even their parents used to call me to thank me always. Even still now, whenever they see me, they respect me, they honour me. They thank me.
So this has really built your reputation in the community that you’ve helped at least some people to cross to Europe?
Yes, I can say it has increased my profile, but ever since I was a student, my profile was always high … but I can say it has increased my reputation in the society.