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A man finds himself in a coastal police base in Tripoli last month after police captured 96 illegal immigrants in a boat as they tried to reach Italy. ( Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Southern Tunisia is being shaken by the Mediterranean’s migrant crisis. It has the great misfortune of sharing a long border with Libya – a lawless, violent state that has emerged as the main staging ground for the crossings, whose frequency and fatality rates are soaring. On April 19, more than 800 migrants drowned when their vastly overloaded boat toppled well short of the Italian island of Lampedusa, their intended destination. There were only 28 survivors.

For Europe-bound migrants, April was the deadliest month on record. The International Organization for Migration reported that by April 27 about 1,780 migrants had died in the Mediterranean. For the full month of April, 2014, there were 96 migrant deaths at sea. The higher fatality rate this year is the result of a number of overlapping factors. The Libyan civil war has made life unbearable for thousands of African migrants in that country, many of whom had worked there for years, and now fear for their lives as that war drags on. Last autumn’s end of the Italian navy’s sweeping Mare Nostrum patrols, meanwhile, has all but eliminated the search-and-rescue efforts. Mare Nostrum’s replacement, called Triton, is a mere one-third of Mare Nostrum’s size and wholly incapable of reaching all the rafts in distress.

Finally, the exodus of Syrians continues unabated. According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, Syrians escaping their civil war are the top source of illegal border crossings to the EU by sea. Last year, about 65,000 Syrians made the journey.

As the number of crossings rises, so, too, do the number of rafts and dinghies drifting into Tunisian waters, most of them in distress. In April alone, several hundred migrants were rescued at sea by Tunisian fishing and coast-guard boats. Those migrants are now housed in makeshift shelters in and around Zarzis and Medenine, the main cities in Tunisia’s south, near the Libyan frontier.

Where they will end up is unknown. Some will be sent back to their home countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Some will apply for asylum in Tunisia. Almost none want to return to Libya to attempt another voyage. They all say they were appalled by the ruthlessness of the Libyan traffickers and smugglers, some of whom forced migrants into decrepit boats at gunpoint.

Last week, I spent three days interviewing everyone from migrants to fishermen, to learn how their lives have been affected by the burgeoning Libyan smuggling industry. These are some of their stories.

(Anis Belhoj)

The captain and the rescued

Last Saturday morning, when the wind was blowing hard in the wrong direction, making it difficult for boats to make Zarzis harbour in Tunisia, a big blue-hulled fishing boat fought its way home, loaded not with fish but with rescued African migrants.

After the boat reached the wharf, two things happened at the same time. The first was high-decibel bellowing by the brother of the captain. He was enraged because the boat, instead of fishing and earning a living for its crew, was transporting 28 migrants to shore – they had been rescued the previous day after their own boat broke down. “Why do we have to pay the bill for you?” he shouted at the Garde Nationale officials on the wharf. “Why are we doing your job for you?”

The second was the migrants’ prayers. Within moments of the boat’s mooring, some of them dropped to their knees on the wharf to give praise to God for saving their lives.

The captain of the vessel was annoyed, too, even if the rescue no doubt saved the lives of the migrants who were attempting to make it to Lampedusa from Libya in windy and chilly conditions.

The captain would give only his first name: Mokhtar. When my interpreter asked him why he would not provide his full name, he admitted that his boat was fishing in Libyan waters, something he did not want the Libyan authorities to know. “We found them in very bad condition,” Mokhtar said. “If we hadn’t made the decision to rescue them, we would have lost them. It was an urgent matter. These people are victims of smuggling. … The smugglers are merciless, and only understand money and killing.”

Mokhtar told me he has participated in several rescues, and that each time he called the Garde National. But the government rescue boats didn’t always come, he said, meaning his boat had to take on the job, as did the boats of his fellow fishermen. “This is not my first time rescuing migrants, and it won’t be my last,” he said. “The migrants just keep coming. The whole of Africa wants to migrate.”

(Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail)

The volunteer

Issam Kibiri is a gentle, slight young man – he’s 26 – and lives with his parents in Medenine. He studied information technology and found work as a bus driver. Dissatisfied, he quit four months ago and joined the Red Crescent. Now, he’s taking care of 120 or so African migrants housed in a former warehouse in the city centre. They came off the boats that didn’t make it to Lampedusa.

It’s volunteer work and he finds it rewarding, even fun. “I love doing this,” he told me over a grilled-chicken lunch. “I love the humanitarian aspect. I hang around with the migrants and become their friend. I don’t want them to feel abandoned or iso-lated.”

Mr. Kibiri brings them water and supplies for the building’s kitchen. He tries to keep the peace. “At first, they were all kept together, but there were clashes,” he said. “The Nigerians asked to be separated and it was probably religious. The Nigerians are Christians; the others are Muslims.”

While the migrants are free to leave the building, the Red Crescent doesn’t encourage it. “The people of Medenine are a bit angered [by the migrants’ presence]. This building is right in the city and near a primary school, but we’ve had no problems.”

When we finished lunch, Mr. Kibiri’s phone rang. “We’ve got two Nigerians trapped in Djerba,” he said, referring to the big island just off the coast. “I have to go get them.”

(Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail)

The migrants

Victor Ozika and his wife, Rita, left Nigeria in 2011 in search of a better life; Germany was their destination. Nearly four years later, they and their two-year-old daughter, Victory, found themselves, instead, packed into a shabby warehouse in Medenine, a southern Tunisian city about 100 kilometres northwest of the the Libyan border badlands.

At least they were alive. A couple of weeks earlier, they and more than 90 other migrants, mostly Nigerians, were loaded into a small rubber raft by Libyan smugglers and, at gunpoint, ordered to head north to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The next day – their outboard motor dead and the raft taking on water – they were rescued by the Tunisian coast guard.

“I still want to go to Italy, and to Germany, but I will not go back to Libya,” Mr. Ozika said. “I am afraid of the Libyans. I am afraid of the boats. I don’t want to die.”

I met Victor and Rita on the second floor of a former warehouse in central Medenine. The cream-coloured building had found new life as a Red Crescent migrants’ centre. It was packed with some 120 African migrants, almost all of whom had been rescued from doomed boats by Tunisian fishermen or the Tunisian coast guard. Most of them were young Nigerian men. The others were from Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, each among the world’s poorest countries.

The Ozikas were lucky. As one of only two families in the warehouse, they were given their own room. Nearby, on the same floor, a couple of dozen Nigerians in a large communal room were dozing, chatting, or talking on primitive Nokia mobile phones. Victor, 27, and Rita, 25, looked tired but healthy. As we talked, Mrs. Ozika rubbed her stomach and I asked if she was okay. “I am pregnant – four months,” she said.

Victor and Rita got married in 2009 and Mr. Ozika found subsistence work as a hospital cleaner in Lagos. The couple were poor, having trouble feeding themselves, and wanted to start a family. Deciding they had nothing to lose, off they went.

After they reached the Nigeria-Niger border, they were in the hands of smugglers, and their journey became a misery. In a small bus, they reached the south-central Niger city of Agadez, in the Sahara Desert, then paid smugglers to board another bus to the Libyan frontier.

“It took three days, and we spent the nights in the desert, just sand,” Mr. Ozika said. “We had no food, only water. We had no money left to buy food.”

Once they reached Marzuq, the small city in southwestern Libya that has been a human-trafficking hub run by ethnic Tebu and Tuareg Libyans for decades, they were stuck. Mr. Ozika picked up some work as a mechanic, and they lived in a communal apartment. Victory was born in Marzuq. They lived there for almost three years, and might have stayed longer were it not for the fighting that reached the city during the Libyan civil war. “They were killing people, and many Nigerians got killed,” Mr. Ozika said.

He went to a well-known park in Marzuq where smugglers and potential clients negotiate journeys. The couple reached Tripoli on April 3, phoned a Libyan whose number he had been given, and were taken to a so-called connection house – a warehouse where migrants wait for their boats – in the port city of Zuwarah, about 60 km east of the Tunisian border. He paid the equivalent of $2,100 to buy passage on the boat.

The raft set off at dawn, dangerously overloaded with 97 passengers and an inexperienced Afghan at the helm. “We had no food, only water,” he said. “They told us we would be in Lampedusa in less than a day. All they said was for us to go straight and after five hours they would call the Italians to rescue us. Then they put us in the boat. They had guns and they shot them in the air.”

In the late afternoon, the boat took on water. “We were scared and we were crying,” he said.

Said Mrs. Ozika, “It was scary, but I put all my faith in God.”

Their motor failed during the night. They bailed water out of the boat, furiously. The next morning, they saw ships. One apparently radioed for help and, at about noon, a Tunisian coast-guard vessel approached them. “I was hoping our rescuers would be Italian,” Mr. Ozika said. By law, an Italian government ship would have had to take them to Italy.

All of them survived and they were taken to Medenine. Mr. Ozika told me that he had no idea what would happen to them, but he had heard that the International Organization for Migration might give him some support to start a business if he chose to return to Nigeria (in fact, the IOM does offer such assistance).

I called Mr. Ozika on his Tunisian cellphone early this week. He sounded relieved that he might be going back to Nigeria. “But I still want to get to Europe some time,” he said, assuring me he would find a way to bypass the Libyan smugglers. “I have your number. I will call you if we reach Italy.”

(Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail)

The smuggler

When I met Lassad Ghrab, he wasted no time in establishing that he was a genuine badass, or had been earlier in his life. He did so by rolling up his right sleeve, exposing a long and nasty scar on the underside of his forearm. “I was in prison for two years in Belgium,” he said. “I was in a fight with an Algerian. He was in worse shape than me.”

Mr. Ghrab, who is Tunisian, claims to be a former smuggler – the veteran of two trips from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and one aborted trip from Libya. We were introduced by a local mobile-phone-shop owner, Mouez Kailene, who has known Mr. Ghrab for years. Mr. Ghrab said the International Organization for Migration assisted in his repatriation after his second smuggling trip, four years ago. The IOM, which is based in Geneva, would not confirm or deny that it has a record of him.

Youssef Gaigi, a Tunisian journalist who is a partner at Tunisialive.net, the country’s English-language news website, knows southern Tunisia well. He said he did not know Mr. Ghrab himself. “However, it is true that fishermen in Zarzis took many people in that period specifically [to Lampedusa],” he said. “Some say that you only needed to go to the beach and you would find a ride to Italy.”

Mr. Ghrab said he was free to speak because he is no longer in the smuggling game, is not wanted by any police authority, has a job (and a new baby) and thinks the world should know about the coldhearted ways of the Libyan smugglers and traffickers. (Smugglers transport migrants with the migrants’ permission; traffickers do so against the migrants’ will.)

I met Mr. Ghrab at a beach restaurant called El Riad, in Zarzis, the port city in southern Tunisia not far from Libyan waters. We talked only hours after a local fishing boat had rescued dozens of African migrants from their leaky raft and delivered them to Zarzis. Mr. Ghrab, 46, is slim and handsome with an engaging smile and an easy manner. He now works on a cousin’s fishing boat.

Mr. Ghrab worked as a fisherman for some years, then spent almost a dozen years bouncing around France, Belgium and Germany as a restaurant worker, one without proper working papers. When he was released from prison in Belgium at the start of 2011, he was deported to Tunisia. At the time, the revolution was under way – the Arab Spring started in Tunisia – and the country was a violent mess. “I was unemployed and feeling desperate,” he said. “The owner of a boat came to ask me for help to smuggle migrants. Since I had been a fisherman, I knew about boats.”

Making a lot of money in a hurry was the attraction. The first trip, in January, 2011, was a doddle. In a well-equipped, 16-metre boat named Issam, he took 23 Tunisians – all part of a fairly wealthy extended family – to Lampedusa, which lies halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. He dropped them off on the remotest part of the island, did a U-turn, and motored home. He was paid 10,000 Tunisian dinars – about $6,300 at current exchange rates – a small fortune by local standards.

The second trip to Lampedusa, in March of the same year, in a 14-metre wooden fishing boat with 120 Tunisians aboard, did not go so well. When they got close to the island, they were spotted by an Italian helicopter.

“So I stopped the boat, gathered everyone around, and told them not to tell the Italians that I was the captain or they will put me in prison,” he said. “The Italians asked why I was driving the boat if I was just one of the migrants and I said I was just the only one who knew how to drive a boat.”

The ruse worked and Mr. Ghrab was delivered to a refugee centre in Bari, in the heel of Italy. A few weeks later, he was flown to Tunisia, he said.

He admits that sheer greed – “I was lured by the money” – made him attempt a third trip, this time from Zuwarah, Libya’s smuggling capital. A Libyan friend took him to meet the Libyan smugglers. His mission was to take 80 migrants to Lampedusa, for which he would be paid 20,000 Tunisian dinars. His plan was to tell the Italian coast guard that he was not a smuggler and that the Libyans had threatened to kill him unless he took the migrants to sea.

He changed his mind after seeing the small boat, which he said would be incapable of making a safe voyage with such a heavy load, and watching the ruthless Libyans in action. “I spent the night with the Libyan traffic-kers,” he said. “They said if I was scared of the African migrants, they would give me a pistol and told me to shoot the first African who makes trouble – in the head. I fled the house at 4 in the morning and returned to Tunisia. I knew the Libyans would kill me if I did not do the trip, so I had to escape.”

I asked him how the smuggling could be stopped. He said it would be impossible and that the Tunisians are complicit in the tragedy because some of the smugglers are Tunisian and that Tunisian fishermen are selling boats to the Libyans that will be used for the migrants’ often disastrous voyages. “We go out fishing for three days at a time and we often see bodies, especially in the summer,” he said. “We just keep going. … I feel sorry for the Africans.”