On 9 June 2023, a boat carrying approximately 750 migrating men, women, and children, left the shores of the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya, heading to Italy. Most of those on board were Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Palestinians. Their voyage and dream of reaching the shores of safety ended tragically on the morning of 14 June, when their boat sank 80 kilometres off the coast of Pylos, Greece.
According to the UN, only 104 passengers survived, and 82 bodies were recovered. The rest are still missing.
This investigation uncovers how human smuggling networks and travel agencies exploit Syrians who want to migrate to Europe, by taking them to Libya on flights operated by private Syrian Airline company Cham Wings. The Military Investment Authority of the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, enables smugglers to operate along this route by issuing specific security clearances.
Profitable secret immigration trade
The data collected during our investigation shows that the average cost per person smuggled to Italy from Western Libya ranges between 2,500 and 3,000 USD, while the cost of smuggling from Eastern Libya ranges from 4,000 to 4,500 USD. If we assume an average cost of 3,600 USD per migrant with an average of 53,310 migrants passing through Libya in 2022 (according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR), the annual revenues of human smuggling networks in Libya would reach approximately 192 million USD.
Data from the Italian Ministry of Interior shows that the number of migrants arriving in Italy via these boats doubled between 1 January 2023 and 21 June of the same year, reaching 58,171 migrants (including 3,527 Syrians), in comparison with 24,808 migrants during the same period in 2022.
“Are you currently in Syria or Lebanon? There is a flight next Monday. Would you like to book a seat?” This is how a smuggler named Abu Huthaifa answered the author of this investigation over the phone, when informed of their wish to travel to Benghazi.
The price was 1,200 USD, via Cham Wings Airlines and the fare price included the cost of a security clearance. As part of the ‘package’, passengers were allowed to delay payment until their landing in Benghazi, in addition to being offered an airport pick up and assistance in leaving the city’s Benina Airport.
"With just three aircrafts, Cham Wings organises two, sometimes three, weekly flights from Beirut to Damascus and then Benghazi, according to Flightradar24".
Abu Huthaifa, who also goes by the name “Hemo Bilker” on Facebook, even suggested connecting our reporter with someone in the city of Tobruk, who was “guaranteed 100%” to secure a journey to the shores of Italy in return for 4,350 USD. This amount would not necessarily be paid in advance, but would rather be “held” as a guarantee in a travel agency in either Libya or Syria.
The smugglers claim that it is fairly easy to travel from Damascus, Beirut, or even Amman to Benghazi and beyond, through certain travel agencies. However, these agencies are fully aware that Libya is not the final destination for most of these travellers. They know that most are headed to Italy where they intend to either settle or transit.
For the sake of this investigation, our reporter contacted several travel agencies in Beirut and Damascus, and could confirm that these trips were quite popular.
A trip to Benghazi from Beirut, Amman, or Cairo, requires a security clearance document which the travel agency itself provides for each traveller.
As for Cham Wings Airlines, it issues a list with the names of all passengers on each flight, and regularly sends it to the Libyan Military Investment Authority in Benghazi.
Libya’s Military Investment Authority
In 2018, the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk (Eastern Libya) passed a bill under law no. 03/2018, establishing the Military Investment Authority and allowing it to hold assets, real estate, and activities that are necessary for the operation of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
According to pamphlets issued by some travel and labour agencies, the Military Investment Authority receives a share of 500 USD per passenger (migrant) in the form of fees paid with the air ticket reservation.
Ahmad al-Qasir is a human rights researcher at Solidarity for Human Rights, a Libyan NGO based in Switzerland. He stated that “the phenomenon of people smuggling from the East picked up after 2020, following the defeat of the forces of retired Major General Khalifa Haftar, their failure to enter Tripoli and the disruption of funding. Hence, it became necessary to find other sources of income like people smuggling.”
Al-Qasir added: “The Military Investment Authority is responsible for issuing these security clearances, and according to the documents we found, it receives 500 USD for each clearance.”
According to al-Qasir, the problem is that, while these migrants enter Libya through its legitimate border crossings, as they travel towards Western Libya, authorities there consider them to have an illegal status.
Tareq Lamloum, board chairman of the Tripoli-based Belaady Organisation for Human Rights, highlighted that “the Military Investment Authority itself put out several announcements to recruit workers and persons with unknown jobs, but the circumstances surrounding their entry is clear and known to everyone.”
He added: “There is no denial, in my opinion, that these migrants enter the country through facilitations provided by the Military Investment Authority and Cham Wings Airlines, whose flights to Libya are openly listed on their official website. Anyone conducting a simple search can access all the details, including flight times and ticket prices.”
"In July 2022, Cham Wings was removed from the EU sanctions list without providing evidence that the original cause for sanction had ceased to exist."
Our reporter contacted the Military Investment Authority in Benghazi for their comments on these clearance fees, their role in facilitating the entrance of migrants, especially from Syria, and their cooperation with Cham Wings. Similarly, the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Foreign Relations Committee of the pro-LNA House of Representatives were also contacted. No response was received by the time of publication.
Frequent flights to Benghazi
Through the website Flightradar24, we managed to track all Cham Wings flights from Syria to Benghazi between January 2020 and 24 June 2023. In this period, the airline conducted 363 flights.
An Airbus A320 can carry between 140-170 passengers. If we assume that each flight carried an average of 150 individuals traveling for migration purposes and multiply that by 363 flights, then the number of passengers during that period would amount to approximately 54,300.
Issam Shammout, head of the Shammout Group, founded Cham Wings in 2007. The group has investments in many sectors including automobiles, steel, shipping, construction, and real estate.
Despite several attempts, our reporter was unable to find updated contact details for the Shammout Group and, therefore, to question them about the profits Cham Wings is reaping from bloody migration routes. As for Cham Wings, they were not responsive to our requests for comment by the time of publication.
Since 2016, this private Syrian carrier has been involved in many controversies.
On 23 December 2016, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the airline on its sanctions list for its involvement in the transport of Russian and Iranian troops to fight in Syria.
On 18 March 2020, the Ministry of Interior of the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli in Western Libya, accused Cham Wings of bringing Syrian fighters with connections to the Russian military Wagner Group into Eastern Libya.
In fall 2021, Cham Wings was also involved in the transport of migrants from Damascus to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, going as far as opening two new offices there. Tens of thousands of migrants arrived in Belarus, some of them on Cham Wings flights, to try to enter irregularly into the EU. Therefore, the European Council sanctioned the airline in November 2021.
However, observers were baffled when in July 2022, the airline was removed from the EU sanctions list without providing evidence that the original cause for sanction had ceased to exist.
We asked the European Commission about this decision and received the following reply: “The European Council has removed Cham Wings Airlines from the sanctions list because it was presented with information that showed that the airline was no longer engaged in the activities upon which it was sanctioned with regards to Belarus.”
The reply did not include the Commission’s views regarding the airline’s transport of migrants into Libya.
"The 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the US Department of State, highlighted that migrants who live in Libya were exploited by both governmental and non-governmental entities."
On 19 April 2023, Member of European Parliament Cyrus Engerer sent an inquiry letter to the European Commission entitled: “Cham Wings chartered flights to smuggle Bangladeshi nationals into Europe via Libya.” The letter indicated that a large number of Bangladeshi nationals “entered Europe irregularly via the central Mediterranean route […] and that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) had reported a 51% increase in irregular arrivals from this route last year.”
With just three aircrafts, the airline organises two, sometimes three, weekly flights from Beirut to Damascus and then Benghazi, according to Flightradar24.
A market of dreams and illusions
Thousands of migrants have chosen to put their fate in the hands of Cham Wings, suspicious travel agencies and human smugglers. Two important factors played a role in choosing such a risky and costly path: the Military Investment Authority facilitating access to Libya via Benghazi, and the closure or simply the complexity of other migration routes.
"According to pamphlets issued by some travel and labour agencies, the Libyan Military Investment Authority receives a share of 500 USD per passenger (migrant) in the form of fees paid with the air ticket reservation."
Sara Prestianni, Advocacy Director at the EuroMed Rights network, told us that “another reason for the increased influx of Syrian refugees from Libya is their subjection to anti-migrant practices on other borders, especially between Turkey and Greece.”
She added that migration route closures and human rights violations in the form of forced returns, as is the case from Greece to Turkey and from Cyprus to Lebanon, all drove refugees to seek other routes to get to Europe, mostly through Libya.
Ads for traveling from Damascus, Beirut, or Erbil to Benghazi abound on social media. We found several Facebook pages for individuals, travel agencies, and smugglers, promoting trips to Benghazi, along with assurances of providing the necessary security clearance and pick-up service from Benina Airport.
Our undercover ‘fake’ migration journey began with the Mahattet Safar (Travel Station) agency. Our reporter posed as a Syrian migrant from Latakia. The sales representative informed them that the cost would be 1,200 USD, via Cham Wings, from Damascus International Airport to Benghazi’s Benina Airport, including the airline ticket and security clearance.
When asked about other possible travel routes to Benghazi, the sales representative suggested the option of travelling from Damascus to Beirut via Cham Wings, then from Beirut to Benghazi via Egyptair, transiting in Cairo, in which case the airline ticket would be separate from the security clearance.
At a later stage, the author of this investigation re-established contacts with Travel Station to question the ethics of their services, given the risks migrants face in Libya. Their response was: “We only provide ticket booking services [...] We don't have the least idea about what people plan to do [once they arrive at destination]."
The travel agency also denied having interactions with smugglers.
Our reporter also contacted Egyptair, inquiring about their role in carrying migrants that are destined to travel irregularly to Europe. Their response was that the company “is not held accountable for any passenger who migrates to another country after his final destination with Egypt Air”.
We also contacted the office of Cham Wings in Beirut and were informed that the cost of travelling from Lebanon would be 1,150 USD including the airline ticket, security clearance, and airport pick-up.
Cham Wings assured us that the trip was 100% guaranteed and that we would be received at Benghazi airport by the airline’s representative, who would handle passport stamps and airport pick up.
Like all migrants to Europe via Libya, we had to seek a smuggler to arrange for our entry into Italy from Libya. This proved easier than expected as social media platforms were filled with pages of smugglers and various offers with direct contact numbers.
Suad (not her real name), a forty-year-old Syrian, had no idea that her decision to flee the dire living conditions in the city of Daraa in 2021 would lead her to even more devastation. She contacted a travel agency named 'Asfaar' to travel to Europe, and paid 1,700 USD to travel to Benghazi with Cham Wings.
The travel agency gave Suad the phone number of Essam, a Syrian living in Libya, and told her that he would help her throughout the journey.
Essam, however, turned out to be a human smuggler, who also worked as a broker with other traffickers. An agent working for Essam received Suad’s passport and took her to stay with a Syrian family from the town of Nawa, also migrating to Italy by boat.
Everyone was then taken to Tripoli, where they stayed with another Syrian family. A driver then took Suad to the city of Zuwarah, where she was received by Essam and put in a warehouse with tens of other Syrian migrants.
Suad tried to depart from Zuwarah twice, on small boats carrying hundreds of other migrants, who were assaulted by the smuggler’s men if they tried to move towards the boat’s top deck. Both of her attempts failed because the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted their boat and sent them back to Tripoli, where she was detained for 15 days in the prison of Ghout al-Shaal.
Suad was later transferred to al-Daraj prison in the city of Ghadames, which lies on the triangular border line between Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia, 580 kilometres from Tripoli. There, she remained for four months.
"Ahmad al-Qasir is a human rights researcher at Solidarity for Human Rights, a Libyan NGO based in Switzerland. He stated that 'the phenomenon of people smuggling from the East picked up after 2020, following the defeat of the forces of retired Major General Khalifa Haftar, their failure to enter Tripoli and the disruption of funding. Hence, it became necessary to find other sources of income like people smuggling.'"
During her detention in al-Daraj prison, Suad was sexually harassed, threatened, and assaulted. When she tried to file a complaint with the prison’s administration, she was sent to solitary confinement. After being released from prison, she registered with UNHCR in Libya, where she currently resides in the hope of finding a safer route to Italy.
Our reporter contacted the Asfaar travel agency, seeking to corroborate Suad's account of the events. They were unavailable to comment by the time of publication.
Prestianni from EuroMed Rights explained: “After migrants are intercepted at sea and returned, they are held in detention centers under horrible conditions and enter an ugly cycle of violence. They continue to try to flee Libya but are repeatedly intercepted, returned, and detained. This led boats to seek alternative routes to Italy either from the eastern Libyan shoreline or the coasts of Tunisia.”
The 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the US Department of State, highlighted that migrants who live in Libya were exploited by both governmental and non-governmental entities. It added that armed groups, criminal networks, tribal groups, smugglers, and human traffickers all competed to smuggle migrants to Libya and other locations, where they are trafficked and assaulted sexually and physically.
Benghazi… A step into the unknown
“Do you want Italy or Tripoli?” This was the prompt reply our reporter received from smuggler Hajj Mohammad al-Warfali, based in Benghazi. We had contacted him via WhatsApp to arrange for the next step of our journey. Several migrants we spoke with confirmed that Hajj Mohammad had received them in Benghazi, and helped them travel to Tripoli and, for some, even got them to Europe.
Hajj Mohammad assured us of his integrity and honesty, and of the safety of the route of our journey, especially in Libya. He boasted: “Do you know who you’re talking to? I have been in this business for 27 years, and I have trained generations [of smugglers] and have children of my own.”
He informed us that the 1,000 kilometres journey from Benghazi to Tripoli would cost us around 110 USD each. As for the overall cost of the trip to Italy, he asked us to wait until the following day, so that he could check the departure dates for boats heading to Italy, since they were heavily dependent on weather conditions.
“I want to check and see which trip is readily available so that I could give you the right price and let you decide. God willing, I will choose the best trips available. Some leave within ten days, some within a week and some will depart the same day. By the fifteenth of this month, I will have selected a few good options, as if I was traveling myself.”
Hajj Mohammad also assured us that, in the event we were detained at sea, he would have us released in no time: “My people have good relations on the inside of prisons, but God willing you will not get caught. None of my customers have ever been detained so far.”
He told us we had the option to travel on a three-day trip departing from Tobruk on a large fishing boat that could carry 400-500 persons. Other trips from the western region, according to Hajj Mohammad, used cruiser boats and lasted eight-ten hours.
Hajj al-Warfali was not the only available option. When a migration route opens, tens of smugglers, brokers, and middlemen start offering their services. They present themselves as kind and well intentioned, and often take on the moniker of Hajj (Muslim pilgrim), to evoke piety and trustworthiness.
An example is Hajj Radwan al-Zawari, known for posting videos of migrants thanking and commending him on boats that seem to have reached European shores.
Al-Zawari assured us that he would be able to reserve an airline ticket and provide the necessary security clearance to get us to Benghazi. For 5,500 USD, he would provide us with a representative who would pick us up, drive us to Tripoli, and see us off on a boat heading to Italy; all within ten days, room and board included.
“You want to reach your destination smoothly and without headaches and problems, right?” asked al-Zawari, “just send me a copy of your passport and I will make the necessary reservations and security clearance, and you do not have to pay anything until you get here. You don’t have to do anything. You are the boss who just follows orders.”
To put us at ease, he sent us a video of the boat that was supposed to take us to Italy adding: “If you get caught at sea, you will receive a full refund, or you can ask for another trip if you want. Carry with you enough cash to get yourself to Benghazi, until I secure you a house, and then you can transfer the rest of the money.”
The smuggler assured us that the trip was secured by the Libyan Coast Guard, which receives 1,000 USD per migrant, in return for supervising the safe departure and passage of each boat at sea.
Our reporter attempted to verify these allegations with the Libyan Coast Guard. They were not available to comment by the time of publication.
Another smuggler, Abu Ahmad, was introduced to us by Abu Huthaifa ‘Hemo Bilker’. He offered us a military-approved trip on board a large fishing boat from Tobruk, 550 kilometres east of Benghazi, in return for 4,200 USD.
Abu Huthaifa insisted: “The western region is filled with militias, and I would not advise you to take that route. They will take your money, put you on a boat and then turn you in.”
Abu Ahmad’s offer included food and accommodation at his house. He suggested we “hold” the money in Libya, Turkey, or at the “Qalaa office” in Tobruk, which, according to him, was the best and safest option.
The Qalaa office presents itself on Facebook as a company specialised in "financial services and car imports".
Our reporter contacted the Qalaa office, asking them to clarify the type of services they reportedly provide to human smugglers. They responded: “We only deal with [exchange] offices, with established reputation, and people who work in our profession. We receive and transfer [funds]. But anything to do with human smuggling, we are against it, regardless of the client.”
The al-Qalaa representative added that they “intervened many times […] to prevent scams and exploitation”.
The perfect trap… Torture, ransom, and loss
Ahmad Fahmi (pseudonym), a 35-year-old Syrian from Homs said: “Every migrant who has attempted to travel by sea from the West and failed, retries from the Libyan East. If you get caught traveling from the west, the smuggler himself becomes a crook, while in the east there are no militias, despite the higher cost of travel. So if you get caught, you are in the hands of the government, and will not be sold or bought.”
Fahmi travelled with Cham Wings from Beirut via Damascus, paying the travel agency 2,800 USD.
Our reporter met with him and his three travel companions in a small apartment on the outskirts of the city of Sfax in Tunisia, 270 kilometres southeast of Tunis, as they awaited their departure towards Europe after an initial failed attempt to leave from Libya. They had originally purchased a ‘travel package’ from al-Warfali to get them to Italy for 2,500 USD.
Al-Warfali placed Fahmi and his companions in a house in Zuwarah, which they shared with 22 other Syrians and 4 Yemenis. They waited there for two and a half months.
Shortly after they departed, along with 85 other people, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted them and took them to a beach near the city of Zawiya. According to Fahmi, the coast guard assaulted them on the way, shouting: “If you move, we will shoot you and throw you in the water. You are here to drown anyway. You will die anyway, and we will kill you.”
“We were merely numbers. They did not even ask about our names. They took us to the Osama Prison in Zawiyah, 50 kilometres West of Tripoli,” Fahmi added. A group of prison workers reportedly beat them with sticks.
The prison, also known as Al-Nasr Martyrs Detention Center, is run by Osama Al-Koni Ibrahim. On 25 October 2021, the UN Security Council added Ibrahim to its sanctions list, for violating the rights of migrants and for having connections with Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, known as ‘Bija’, and Mohammad Kashlaf, known as ‘Qasab’, both accused of human trafficking.
On their first day in prison, several people asked Fahmi and his companions to pay 6,000 Libyan Dinars (1,250 USD) in return for their release, in what seemed to be a ransom.
They were advised by a Libyan working in the prison to pay the money or risk being “sold” to the notorious Maya prison, 27 kilometres West of Tripoli, which is run by one of the militias.
Fahmi contacted his brother to transfer the 6,000 Libyan Dinars and was released from prison in July 2022. He continued to reside in the Sorman area in al-Zawiyah, where he worked for a while before deciding to move to Tunisia, hoping to find an easier migration route.
A report by the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission in Libya, issued on 27 March 2023, confirmed that there was overwhelming evidence that migrants were systematically subjected to torture in Libya, stating that: “trafficking, enslavement, forced labour, imprisonment, extortion and smuggling of vulnerable migrants generated significant revenue for individuals, groups and State institutions.”
The 2022 Amnesty International report said that the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration continued, since November 27, to detain around 4,000 migrants and refugees in appalling conditions. It denounced that they are subjected to systematic torture, extortion, and that ransoms are requested for their release.
On 5 May 2023, talks were held in Rome between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Italian Minister of Defense Guido Crosetto. The issue of combating irregular migration, and the importance of consolidating security relations and cooperation between Libya and Italy were at the top of the agenda.
However, EuroMed Rights’ Prestianni warned that “the dangers of the exploitation of the migration issue by Field Marshal Haftar are obvious. As was the case with previous governments, this matter may be used as leverage with Italy and the European Union to gain recognition for their leadership. The losing party in such extortion methods are always the migrants and refugees.”
Fahmi and his companions, Suad, and thousands of other migrants came to Libya fleeing the scourge of war, poverty, and injustice. The Turkey-Greece migration route claimed the lives and dreams of many Syrian refugees before it was closed permanently, after which Cham Wings and the Libyan Military Investment Authority offered them an alternative route of torture and subjugation. Their perilous journey took them through various smuggling points on the Libyan coast with all its traffickers, militias, and prisons, while Europe turns a blind eye to the trampling of human rights that happens in the Mediterranean Sea.
Disclaimer: This investigation is co-published with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), but The New Arab Investigative Unit was not involved in the development of this project. All related questions should be therefore addressed to ARIJ (Editor@arij.net). Click here to read the original Arabic version.