Mitchell van de Klundert
Mitchell van de Klundert
According to the Dutch Public Prosecution Service, an internationally operating human smuggling network has committed atrocities against thousands of Eritrean migrants in Libya. They were imprisoned and abused with their relatives being extorted to pay ransoms. Hundreds of the victims now live in the Netherlands. 191 witnesses have made a statement about this to the Dutch Public Prosecution Service.
In recent weeks, Nieuwsuur spoke with several Eritreans who have fallen victim to the smugglers and have been detained for months on farms around the city of Bani Walid in Libya. The existence of the prisons has been verified through descriptions, drawings and satellite images.
In this video we show you what happens in the camps and what system is behind it:
These are the torture camps of Bani Walid
“There were three large sheds on the compound, with more than 2,000 people in each shed,” says one of the victims. They only want to tell their story anonymously, for fear of reprisals by the regime or people smugglers against relatives in Eritrea. “Some sleep at night and others during the day, because there is not enough room for everyone to sleep at the same time.”
Victims say they were beaten with sticks and garden hoses. There is video material showing these abuses. Women migrants were taken from the sheds by smugglers to be raped. “They did very bad things to the women, sometimes it was also filmed,” says one of the victims.
The people with whom Nieuwsuur spoke are not witnesses in the criminal case against some suspects.
Criminal revenue model
Relatives of the migrants in the Netherlands were called by the smugglers to pay a ransom. According to the Public Prosecution Service, millions of euros have been earned with this. “We see that an exploitation system has been devised, a criminal revenue model in which people are seen as commodities,” says press officer Gerben Wilbrink of the National Public Prosecutor’s Office.
The Public Prosecution Service has been mapping the network since 2018 and is now prosecuting two ringleaders. They have been charged with participation in a criminal organization, aggravated assault and human trafficking.
One of the two is the Eritrean Tewelde G., who is known as Walid. He is imprisoned in the Netherlands after being extradited from Ethiopia. The other main suspect is Kidane Zekarias H., an Eritrean who has been on the Dutch wanted list since 2021 and who previously escaped from Ethiopia. He is still stuck in Dubai.
Five other people who are seen as ‘money collectors’ have also been arrested. According to the Public Prosecution Service, they are responsible for collecting the ransom. The network is suspected of having made thousands of victims in various countries. “It is our goal to disrupt and eliminate the entire network,” says Wilbrink of the Public Prosecution Service.
Almost always asylum for Eritreans
Eritrea is one of the most unfree countries in the world. There is no free press, all but one political party is banned and there is a conscription of which it is unclear when it will end. Young people in particular are fleeing the country. Because of this situation, Eritreans in the Netherlands almost always receive asylum. About 25,000 Eritreans, mostly young men, now live in the Netherlands.
According to Eritrea expert Mirjam van Reisen (Tilburg University), the Eritrean regime is involved in the human smuggling network and extortion in the Netherlands. She calls it a “closed system” in which the people smugglers work together with intermediaries in the Netherlands who are linked to the regime.
“Victims in Libya are forced to talk on the phone with their Eritrean relatives while they are being tortured. An instruction to pay a ransom follows, and regime intermediaries then collect that money,” says Van Reisen. She spoke with her research group to hundreds of refugees, dissidents and smugglers.
According to Van Reisen, embassy officials of the regime visited locations in Libya where human trafficking takes place. An important member of the smuggling network would also now work for the Eritrean secret service. The ransom payments are made through an alternative financial system controlled by the regime, says Van Reisen.
According to the Public Prosecution Service, Eritreans in the Netherlands experience fear of the regime and of the smugglers. The Public Prosecution Service does not want to comment on the question whether there are concrete indications of involvement of the Eritrean regime in the human smuggling network. “We can’t say anything about that at the moment,” says press officer Wilbrink.
Embassy Eritrea: fabricated allegations
The embassy of Eritrea in The Hague has been asked for a response by Nieuwsuur. In a letter, it says: “The embassy of Eritrea emphatically rejects the fabricated allegations against the Eritrean government by these so-called researchers from Tilburg University.” The embassy also writes “fully supports legal action by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service against people smugglers”. Read the full response here.
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it is familiar with Van Reisen’s research and believes that there are “strong indications that human trafficking takes place under the protection of the Eritrean rulers”. The ministry does not want to comment on possible involvement of the regime in the specific smuggling network that is now being prosecuted and the ransom payments.
Walid’s lawyer says that she and her client do not consider it opportune to respond now.
About the investigation
Nieuwsuur has verified the locations of two walled farms around the town of Bani Walid that are reflected in statements from victims. It concerns a location on Road 51 that has already been designated by the UN Security Council as a location for a human trafficking camp. Victims also point to a second location, known as a poultry farm. Video footage from a third location in the north of Bani Walid has been captured by the Libyan Brigade 444. This militia has been linked by Amnesty International to torture and unofficial detention.