An inside look at the extraordinary scale of people smuggling in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been described by some as the new ‘slave trade’.
My journey starts five miles out at sea. Every night the Libyan coastguard patrol these waters where smugglers launch migrant boats destined for Europe.
COASTGUARD: I think we have a big problem today, we have a lot of boats today.
Getting past the coastguard is the last leg of the migrant trail. I'm surprised how armed they are. There's a machine gun attached to the boat. There's an RPG. They're ready for a fight. Quickly, the coastguard spot a boat in the distance.
REPORTER: It’s people.
COASTGUARD: Stop Your Engines, Stop Engines.
I'd say there's about at least 100 people there.
REPORTER: Where are you from?
MIGRANT (Translation): Qa’abil (Yemen)
In the past few years, hundreds of thousands have been picked up by a European-led rescue effort and taken to Italy. It's saved countless lives but many think it's encouraged more to take the journey.
REPORTER: You can hear the babies crying. I can’t imagine how scary it would be for me to be there, never mind a baby.
Now, the EU's spending tens of millions of dollars supporting the Libyan coastguard to stop more boats, board them and take them back to Libya. There you go. That's two boats in the space of five minutes, each with about 100, 120 people on.
The EU's changing tactics seem to be working. So daylight started to emerge now, we've been out here for a good few hours and now we are starting to go back to the port. In August 2016, 21,000 people made it to Italy from Libya but in August 2017 just 4,000 did. But turning the migrants boat back means these people are now stuck in Libya, a war-torn lawless country where migrants are often exploited and abused.
REPORTER: Does anyone speak English? Do you speak English? Where are you from?
REPORTER: From Gambia. Is this your first time trying or have you tried before?
MIGRANT: No, this is my second time.
REPORTER: Second time? What do you think is going to happen now? What happens?
MIGRANT: We don’t know what is happening right now.
REPORTER: Are you scared?
MIGRANT: Yes, I’m scared.
People smuggling is big business here. The coastguard told us migrants are paying about $1,500 for a place on one of these boats. That means there's about $900,000 worth of people here. We see them and people and smugglers see them as money. With so much money at stake, how easy will stopping the smugglers be? I asked the man in charge of the coastguard here.
COASTGUARD (Translation): The struggle is a long one but to break the organised smuggler networks is the most difficult thing.
The migrants caught by the coastguard today are taken to one of Libya's network of detention centres. But for me my next stop is the Libyan capital. On the multibillion-pound migration trail, nearly all roads now pass through Tripoli. The numbers reaching Italy have dropped in recent months but there are still thought to be a million migrants in Libya and on the streets of Tripoli they're everywhere, many trying to raise enough money to pay for their crossing to Europe. For some it will be the second or third time trying but it's causing tensions with some of the locals.
LOCAL MAN: You want to go to Europe, you want to sleep there. Go back to your country, go back where you belong.
REPORTER: Why are you so angry?
LOCAL MAN: I am angry because we had enough. We exist in our life, in our country here. They are disturbing us. Go back to your country.
This shows you how tense this is. I suppose Libyans feel as though there's a problem that isn't their problem. Life on the streets is hard. But not nearly as hard as being in a detention centre. It's rare to get permission to film in these centres but this one's agreed. Here, there are over 1,000 men. I'm shown around by Enes, the manager.
ENES, DETENTION CENTRE MANAGER: There are many nationalities, there is Malian Ghanaian, Nigerian, as you can see.
REPORTER: Can't believe how many people are up?
ENES: It’s a very tight place. They sleep like this, sitting. Just imagine.
REPORTER: It's absolutely boiling in here. Thanks a lot. It smells pretty badly as you'd imagine having this many men in one place.
Some here are refugees but many are economic migrants who see Europe as a way to escape poverty, even travelling from as far away as South Asia.
ENES: This is Shadat, he’s from Bangladesh.
REPORTER: You are from Bangladesh. How much did you pay?
SHADAT: 7000 dollars I paid to come here and go to Italy.
REPORTER: $7000. That's lot of money.
SHADAT: I sell my cows and I have some small land I sell also that.
REPORTER: Why did you sell everything?
SHADAT: Because I have a dream. Everyone should have a dream, that’s why I have a dream. I want to go to Europe then I will be a rich man.
REPORTER: Do you regret leaving?
SHADAT: Yeah. If I knew before I came here, I would never have come to here.
Most of these men will be here for months and feeding them is getting harder. The centre isn't receiving enough money from the Libyan government, with more migrants being stopped at sea there could be even more mouths to feed. Also here are 200 women and children.
REPORTER: Do you like being here? You don't like it? Why?
CHILD: I don’t have a job.
REPORTER: You don’t have a job? You’re too young to have a job.
The women here tell me shocking stories of the invasive searches and sexual abuse that they've encountered on the migrant trail.
WOMAN: Whenever they want to search you they will get you to get naked and to the extent that they will put their fingers into your, into your clitoris, to know whether you have hiding something in there. It’s for their own pleasure, it’s awful.
REPORTER: This all of you? This happens to all of you?
REPORTER: Who did that? Who was it?
WOMAN: The police.
REPORTER: When they searched you, what were you feeling and thinking?
WOMAN: You feel bad.
WOMAN 2: I was thinking what is happening to me
WOMAN 3: I was crying.
WOMAN 4: What is this, why do they do such a thing?
These women are not alone. Along the migrant trail billions are being made from slavery and extortion. And aid organisations say that Europe's attempts to push migrants back to Libya are feeding a criminal system of abuse. While the EU is under pressure to stem the flow it says a top concern is to help people stuck in Libya. Long before they make it to the Libyan coast, migrants have to endure the deadly crossing of the Sahara Desert.
Next stop on my journey - the city of Agadez in neighbouring Niger, they used to see pick-up trucks full of people heading into the open desert for Libya. The migrant trade was so ingrained here, thousands of people were profiting from it. The EU's given nearly 300 million euro here to help authorities clamp down and smuggling is now illegal.
We have been given access to a secure military base that contains cars that have been taken from smugglers and it's quite unbelievable to see the scale. There are about 100 pick-ups trucks around me, each one of them can take 50 people at a time and they'll be making daily attempts to try to get to Libya. Some of them like this one here, have even got identity cards in them just showing you where these people are coming from. This one is from Guinea Bissau, from Liberia, people from across Africa.
But for each car confiscated there's a driver without a vehicle and without a livelihood. Former drivers have even set up a trade union. Ayouba Bachirou is one of the leaders.
REPORTER: Nice to meet you. All of these people around us used to be smugglers themselves?
AYOUBA BACHIROU (Translation): Yes, there are loads of us. Almost 5.000 people were involved in the trade. These people now have nothing to do.
Ayouba is angry but the EU is trying to help and it turns out today they're holding a conference in town. But this isn't just any meeting. Along with Nigerian and EU officials are people smugglers and lots of them. They're lining up to be selected for EU funding to launch businesses of their choice, away from the camera, an official gave me more information.
Each smuggler can get 6,000 euro at a time to move from smuggling into any profession that they wish. For example they can say they want to be a mechanic and given money to become one. I was told the smugglers are being given EU money by third parties. The officials said the scheme has flaws, though.
The issue is it's almost impossible to vet these guys because there's no paper that says you're a smuggler. You just need friends or colleagues who will vouch for you. They also told me it's hard to monitor how the smugglers will spend the money. The EU has since said they don't give money to ex-smugglers but they do confirm they're training them and investing in their businesses. Some are questioned though is it right to reward ex-smugglers in this way?
Even with EU efforts, there's still a smuggling business here. But the trade is now hidden. You just have to know where to look. Just had a phone call from a guy who says he will let us speak to him. He is a smuggler. He currently has about 20 to 25 people literally in his house and today he's taking them across the Sahara into Libya. We're driving into a compound now which is where we'll be meeting our friend but we are a long way from the centre of Agedez and here we go it’s - migrants.
They seem quite surprised to see us.
REPORTER: Hello. Does anybody speak English? You all speak English? Where are you from?
MIGRANT: Nigeria, sir.
REPORTER: Nigeria. Are you guys trying to make it to Europe?
In the compound there's a mixture of Nigerian men, women and children. The men say they travelled here together just after they finished school.
REPORTER: Where are you going next? Are you going to Libya now? That's the next place?
REPORTER: Libya is a very dangerous country. It's very unstable. You don't know that?
MIGRANT: No. Where I’m coming from is more dangerous than Libya. Libya, I know they are a war country, but they love nature, they love people. They can help each other.
MIGRANT 2: Truth is we are not going to stay in Libya. We are going to Libya first, before going to Europe.
REPORTER: What did they say Europe is like? What did they say - Europe is good as well?
MIGRANT: Europe helps people that don’t have homes. As well as that they give you a chance. You’re always welcome in the country, always welcome.
REPORTER: You've only ever heard good things about Libya and Europe?
MIGRANTS: Yes, yes.
REPORTER: I mean, nowhere is completely good.
MIGRANT: I know but our home where we are coming from is one day peace, one day bombing. So we have to take the risk.
Towards the end of our conversation the mood changed.
MIGRANT 2: Some of us, we are scared.
REPORTER: You're scared?
Yes, it's pretty obvious everyone is confused about what the hell is going on and they're being briefed about the people who run this place. We have to be a little bit careful about what we say because he's standing just behind us. But they seem to be in a very bad way and have no idea what's going to happen next.
REPORTER: Shall we leave our water?
It's a very weird situation. The most amazing thing about it is just how little they seem to know about the journey ahead of them. None of them seem to have any idea about Libya and about the horrors that await them. Later that day, we hear the migrants we just met are leaving for Libya across the desert. To avoid detection, the smuggler sends them out of town alone. He will meet them at night fall. We arrange to be there too.
Crossing the Sahara was always dangerous but the recent clampdown means it's now too risky for smugglers to use the main road so the migrants travel on deadly tracks instead. Definitely don't want to get lost on these roads. There's very likely going to be lightening and a thunderstorm that will hit us. As the storm hits it quickly becomes clear just how tough an environment this is.
This is not ideal. Our road has become a river. As we wait for the storm to pass, the smuggler phones us, saying he's no longer coming, leaving the young migrants stuck in the desert and also unable to contacts them. You start to feel very, very isolated here. I would not want to be a migrant in this. With the water rising further we have no choice but to head back to Agadez.
REPORTER: Oh, man. Oh, God. Hold that, mate. Get on the other end.
Our car has just been stuck in the middle of a lake that was created by the storm. We managed to pull it out in the end because we had a 4 by 4 with us. If we were a couple of migrants it is very likely we would have been abandoned and left there and we know for sure there's migrants out tonight so I don't know what's happened to them.
The next day we hear at least seven people have been found dead in the desert. We don't know if they were the ones we'd met. The smuggler had gone to ground. Back in Agadez, I head to meet people who have survived a similar fate. Between October 2016 and August 2017 the International Organisation for Migration rescued 1100 people, it’s impossible to know how many of these have died.
REPORTER: How many people here know someone who have died along the way?
MIGRANT: There are plenty.
REPORTER: 16? 17?
MIGRANT: Four people died. Those idiot drivers, they will leave people there. People are dying in the desert, in the Sahara desert.
REPORTER: Does anybody here think of trying it again?
MIGRANTS: No, no, no. It’s not impossible. We want to go back to our country.
The journey through the desert has become more dangerous than ever, with smugglers taking new routes to evade EU-trained authorities. But will this stop the people at the start of the migrant trail, searching for a European dream or the smugglers who profit so much from sending them? A
Nigeria - nearly 40,000 people made it to Italy from here in 2016, more than any other country. Extreme poverty fuels a thriving smuggling trade. The police have invited me to see a suspected smuggler who had just been caught. As soon as I walk in I'm put right in the middle of this woman's interrogation.
POLICE: She’s done one girl before - now three girls, and two boys. Correct?
WOMAN: No, one girl before. One.
POLICE: Only one?
POLICE: Don’t tell me lies, you have sent three girls.
They found evidence of a contract with a migrant and money transfers to and from Italy.
REPORTER: How much money did these women owe?
POLICE: 15000 Euros.
Police believe to pay for their journeys the women have to work as prostitutes.
REPORTER: Do you not feel bad, upset that you're making girls work as prostitutes just to give you money?
WOMAN: I don’t feel they are going to do prostitution over there.
REPORTER: What's going to happen now?
POLICE: For the courts to decide on the matter.
It's unbelievable to see how much money they're making. These already received supposedly 15,000 euro from a girl. She's got two more girls on the way who are both going to give her 15,000 each. So that is potentially 45000 euros in hand. The woman has been kept in custody and is now awaiting trial. The EU has spent more than 70 million euro to tackle Nigeria's migrant trade. One place that's received EU money is the government's anti-trafficking agency.
REPORTER: How is it going? Nice to meet you.
EMMANUEL: Good. Good morning.
This poster says ‘I was promised a job as a waitress but when I arrived the traffickers forced me to work as a prostitute’ is this what happens a lot, people are sold a false dream?
EMMANUEL: Yes, yes. A lot of girls out of ignorance fall into a deception of the human traffickers. Human trafficking is modern day slavery.
REPORTER: What is this on the board, the numbers?
EMMANUEL: We have a number of cases reported. We have suspects arrested. We also have a number of convictions.
REPORTER: These are the actual convictions that you've got?
REPORTER: You've had six?
EMMANUEL: Six convictions.
REPORTER: That doesn't seem like that many. Why is that?
EMMANUEL: You don’t arrest and then convict. It has to go through the process in the law courts. It can last for 1 year or 2 years, or 3 years.
In 2016, there were 507 trafficking investigations nationwide but only 24 people were convicted. It seems like a drop in the ocean for this EU-backed agency, especially as it's not hard to find smugglers here. On the other side of the city a smuggler and two women are about to set off to Europe. This is my chance to get to the start of the migrant trail but it's dangerous. The smuggler, known as Tony, is nervous. Nobody knows what he does and even his wife thinks he's a farmer.
REPORTER: Nice to meet you, how are you doing. Are you Tony?
TONY: Fine. Yeah, I’m Tony.
REPORTER: Very nice to meet you. Thank you for your time.
We're all going to jump in his vehicle and drive to his house which I'd prefer not to do but I don't have a choice. If he's caught by police he could face 15 years in prison. He doesn't trust us and we're not sure if we trust the man who trades in people's lives. We're rushed into a house with the camera hidden.
REPORTER: I’m Ben. Nice to meet you!
The women are kept here ahead of the journey. It's hidden in the suburbs, outside the city.
WOMAN: Good afternoon.
REPORTER: Are you the ladies going to Europe?
WOMAN: Yes. Hello sir.
The women are aged 25 and 30. Their families have encouraged them to go.
REPORTER: How much do you need to pay to get to Europe?
WOMAN: 25000 dollars.
REPORTER: $25,000? So you guys have money with you that you can use? What if they get robbed along the way?
SMUGGLER: You can’t see their money. We swallow the money.
REPORTER: You swallow money?
WOMAN: The way you swallow food, you swallow money. It’s just a little water, you use to swallow it. It’s when you want to bring it up, you drink coke. Then poo poo.
REPORTER: You're telling me you have money inside your body?
REPORTER: How much money are you swallowing?
SMUGGLER: Sometimes $2,000
SMUGGLER: Sometimes 2000 to 5000. Not in one go, you wrap it, ten, ten, ten in sellotape.
REPORTER: I've been to Niger where people are dying in the desert. I've met people in Libya who say they're being sexually assaulted.
WOMAN: Everybody has their own destiny you understand? So many who went there they succeeded there were some who died there. But we are going to be among the successful ones. We’ll be counted among the successful ones.
It's clear the women are risking a lot for this trip. It's going to take them years to repay the smuggler and it didn't seem like he was being entirely honest with them.
REPORTER: Everyone I spoke to was telling me that they hadn’t been properly explained about how the risks are along the way. The desert is dangerous. The sea is dangerous. Libya has parts that are dangerous. Do you explain to the people you send?
SMUGGLER: I don’t tell them, I tell them they won’t go.
REPORTER: They won't go if you tell them? So for you it's more about money than safety?
SMUGGLER: Yes, I’m looking to the money.
I've reached the end of my journey. It's clear it's going to be hard to stop this brutal industry worth billions, employing so many in countries where jobs are scarce. So I just got a message from the smuggler saying the girls have now left Benin City to head towards Agadez, to eventually go to Europe. And I’ll be honest and say that genuinely makes me very upset because I've seen the stuff these girls are going to go through and it is horrible. The numbers reaching Italy have been dramatically cut for now but new routes have already opened up and around a million migrants are still trapped in Libya with dreams of Europe. Many more are on the way.
reporter / producer
director / producer / camera
17th October 2017