I did not wait long in the Mauritanian capital for "Sheikh Ould Cheikh Ahmed" as he presented himself.

Ali Pasha came, where I retired to the famous "Tunisia Café" in Nouakchott.

I pretended that I wanted to reach Europe through smuggling routes, so he assured me in a confident tone that this was available and easy, and that he would take me on his way to the Moroccan city of Nador, and there Europe would be within my reach.

It is enough to communicate with "Our Sheikh" - as many of those who arrived in Europe call him - and coordinate with him via Facebook from anywhere, to make an appointment with him in Nouakchott, and there arrange the trip to the borders of Europe through the old salt caravan route, passing through 3 countries.

Many of those wishing to migrate clandestinely to Europe had to go to the western route (the Great Desert Road) through Mauritania after the changes taking place in Libya, and there the journey of thousands of kilometers crossing the international borders begins, from one human smuggler to another in exchange for thousands of dollars.

This investigation, which lasted for seven months, and based on the personal experiences of the investigator and the testimonies of refugees who went through this difficult experience, reveals the details of smuggling operations and methods from Mauritania to Morocco via Mali and Algeria, and how smugglers gain huge fortunes.

alternate path

Recent data published by the European Border and Coastal Protection Agency (FRONTEX) for the period between September and December 2018 indicates that migration through Libya has decreased by 87%, and Tunisia has rapidly replaced Libya as the main departure point for irregular migrants. Those who were discovered along the Mediterranean, the western route (Desert Road) from Mauritania has become a destination for many asylum seekers and irregular migration.

According to Frontex, 300 irregular crossings were recorded in the western Mediterranean in April 2021, an increase of about 70% over the same month in 2020. The total crossings between January and April 2021 amounted to more than 3,200 Transit, an increase of 5% compared to the same period last year.

As for across the Atlantic Ocean (from the coast of Mauritania to the Canary Islands), the International Organization for Migration estimated the number of migrants during the year 2020 at more than 5,000 who arrived on 200 boats, noting that the number has doubled 10 times compared to 2019.

“More migrants are going to Mauritania because of the tightening of procedures in Niger. Public awareness of the dangers of going to Libya has also increased, through the role of the media and the efforts of the International Organization for Migration, including encouraged to go there.

Twisted and hard road

The main routes and paths of irregular migration to Europe from Mauritania and the Sahel-Saharan countries (Al-Jazeera)

The journey begins from the Mauritanian capital, through Mali, then Algeria, to Morocco, specifically the city of Nador (about 500 km north of the capital Rabat), and from there infiltration into the Spanish-ruled city of Melilla (about 10 km west of Nador) in different ways, either by jumping from a high wall It varies between 5-6 metres, swim a few kilometers or try to cross the port gate.

Some migrants choose to reach Ceuta (the other Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory), which overlooks the Strait of Gibraltar and is about 385 km from Melilla, but this may cost them more money and wait longer for the opportunity to cross.

The journey between Nouakchott and Nador extends about 3000 km, which is a long distance and arduous crossing, and a large part of it is located through the desert, but "Our Sheikh" makes it easy for those who wish to emigrate.

The author of the investigation inquires, “Our Sheikh,” about the road and the supposed time of arrival, to explain in the language of the expert that the matter is well arranged, but it depends on the condition of the road, adding that after about 4 days he will reach the Algerian city of Tamanrasset (which is located in the heart of the Sahara and is about 1981 km south of the capital, Algiers). ).

He reassures him that he will rest for a day or two with one of his men, after which he will travel to Ain Salah (1300 km south of Algiers), where “Jamal” (a nom de guerre for a smuggler) will wait for him and take him to “Yassine” (a nom de guerre for another smuggler) in Ghardaia (600 km). south of the capital Algiers), who will take him to the border with Morocco, to introduce him there to another smuggler who will take him to Nador.

"Everything is one hundred percent in order," asserts our sheikh in a confident tone.

Along this route, the network of smugglers working with "Our Sheikh" is spread and irregular migrants have to pay a certain amount at each arrival point.

"Our Sheikh" gets 1,600 dollars in return for transporting the person wishing to immigrate to Tamanrasset, and the total cost of the trip to Nador, on the outskirts of Spain, is 3,250 dollars, and "everyone has to get his right," as "Our Sheikhna" asserts.

Often among the masses of irregular migrants via the Salt Road are large numbers of Arabs: Yemenis, Syrians, Sudanese and Palestinians, who coordinated with “Our Sheikh” or other smugglers, and came to Mauritania because of the lack of an entry visa to the country or the ease of obtaining it, and from there their journey begins .

Some of them succeeded in reaching their goal after months that stretched from late 2018 to January 2020 - as they spoke in the investigation - and many of them failed, or they are waiting for their chance in Nador to enter Spanish territory.

Kurt Deboeuf, a former adviser to the Belgian prime minister, stresses that it is very difficult for Europeans to understand what it means to live in abject poverty under a dictatorship or under the scrutiny of the security services, which are the reasons why people prefer taking very dangerous roads to reach Europe.

According to him, "there is no European vision at the moment for the issue of irregular migration, and the only vision is to close the borders. I think it is a very dangerous strategy in the long term."

Europe through the desert

The path of the journey of young Jacob from Yemen to Europe via Mauritania (Al-Jazeera)

The Yemeni young man, Yaqoub Al-Raqimi (26 years), arrived in Nouakchott based on the previous experience of a close friend of his who works as a doctor, who succeeded in reaching Spain with the help of our "Sheikh".

The medical student at Sanaa University had to make a long journey from Yemen to Oman and then Malaysia, which does not impose a visa on Yemenis, so that he can think about his future plans while being safe, he says.

The raging war in Yemen, the worsening humanitarian crisis, the stalemate and the emigration of most of the family pushed Yaqoub to take the irregular migration path towards Europe, through a tortuous, difficult and costly path.

“There is no specific point of entry for every nationality. People look for countries that do not require entry visas, and from there they try to move to the place they consider to be an entry point to Europe,” says Sarah Pristiani, Migration and Asylum Program Officer at the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

Jacob booked a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Nouakchott, and then contacted the smuggler "Sheikhna", who had won the praise of his friend, who crossed to Spain, where he was safe thanks to him.

And it was agreed.

Jacob's journey was not, as his friend had decorated it for him, as he and comrades from Yemen and Palestine spent 4 days on the road from Mauritania to Mali without food, and faced death in the unpaved roads in which the smugglers cut their cars full of irregular migrants very quickly.

On the side of the road, the sight of wrecked cars and endless sand dunes horrified the outcome of the journey.

Smugglers usually crowd numbers of migrants in cars or pickup trucks that cross the desert between countries without stopping, where they pray night and day without sleep or rest, and most of them use unpaved and bumpy secondary roads, away from the control of the army and security services, so when crossing from Mali to Algeria The cars were replaced with Algerian plates that were waiting.

"There was a checkpoint on the way to Tamanrasset, so our sheikh's men turned towards a mountain road, but they blackmailed us and asked each person for an additional $200," Yacoub says.

Yaqoub and his companions had to contact the smuggler, "Our Sheikh", and refused to pay any additional money, as the agreement was to pay $1,200 only until Tamanrasset.

Makers of hopes and pains

Ibrahim's journey from Gaza to Mauritania and then Europe via Mali and Algeria (Al-Jazeera)

"Our Sheikh" is active on the social network Facebook, and by reviewing his account (3248 friends), we found many immigrants who arrived in Europe via Mauritania on friendship with him, and most of these immigrants are from Yemen, Palestine and Syria, according to their biographies.

“Human smuggling in Mauritania is a kind of political influence,” says Philip Froud, a Canadian researcher and expert in immigration affairs and its path, and there are officials who benefit from smuggling funds in addition to smugglers - according to him - and this was confirmed by Ibrahim Sultan, the Palestinian youth from Gaza who saw this with the mother His eyes are in Nouakchott airport, he says.

Sultan currently lives in Antwerp, northern Belgium, awaiting a decision on his asylum decision.

He had reached Europe via the same desert route from Mauritania, after he also followed the example of a friend who had arrived before him to Morocco through another smuggler called "Othman".

The Palestinian youth contacted "Othman" by phone and then left Cairo on a plane bound for Nouakchott.

The "transit" flight stopped in Algeria, so he called the smuggler, who reassured him and told him that 10 other Palestinians with him on the same plane would take the same flight.

He says, "We were received solemnly at Nouakchott airport by a person who works with Othman. He came to us as if he was a police officer. Perhaps he is an officer, I am not sure of that, but the facilities that were provided to him and us can only be obtained by the officers, as he can enter any office At the airport and the policemen kiss his hand. He stamps our passports for the ten of us before any other passenger, everyone at the airport moves after him. This does not happen to an ordinary person."

With his clients, Othman takes the same old salt caravan route preferred by smugglers, passing through Mali to Tamanrasset and then Morocco.

The author of the investigation decided to contact him and this time pretended that he was a Palestinian who wanted to reach Morocco to cross to Europe.

He exchanged voice messages with him via WhatsApp.

Othman spared no effort to reassure the author of the investigation, and told him that many young Palestinian men had arrived on his way to Morocco, and that he would follow the path step by step and do his best.

While the journey of the investigator ended in the voice messages, Sultan's journey through Mali was not as easy as "Othman" had imagined him, but was closer to death every moment, as he himself remembers.

"When I left, they told me the road was safe but tiring, without mentioning how tired it was, it was deadly. You are in the Sahara and you have nothing but God's mercy. The smugglers claim they know the route, but they mislead it."

The smugglers have intertwined relations with the security and army men on the borders in the countries where the smuggling networks are active, allowing them to cross, and this is what Ibrahim discovered when crossing from Mauritania to Mali in cars provided by the smuggler “Othman”.

"We passed by the army on the Mauritanian-Malian border, and they did not stop us. I could not determine whether it was the Malian army or the Mauritanian."

What surprised Ibrahim was that the smugglers were armed with full equipment during the trip, RPG launchers, PKC machine guns and 4 Kalashnikovs. “With these weapons you can open a front,” he says.

In one of the audio messages between the investigator and smuggler, "Othman", the latter boasts of the strength and relationships he possesses, and says, "I can give you the names of young men who left two weeks ago and they will inform you of the strength of Othman's relations. You must always make sure of the person through whom you are leaving."

Tamanrasset.. Crossroads

Tamanrasset (on the borders of Niger and Mali) is a crossroads for the journeys of these smugglers from Mauritania to Mali via Gao (GAO) - the capital of the Gao region in northeastern Mali, about 1206 kilometers from the capital Bamako and about 2,200 kilometers from Tamanrasset - or those coming Through "Agadez" in central Niger, which is the gateway to the Sahara and the crossroads of migrants from neighboring countries or from the depth of Africa, about 963 km from the capital Niamey and 875 km from Tamanrasset, the journey continues in the direction of Morocco to cross to Europe.

In this city located in the heart of the desert, which is a gathering and transit point for irregular migrants, things did not go as Ibrahim heard from the smuggler, as the atmosphere was tense security because of a problem in a refugee center there.

The police arrested him and his companions.

They were held for 10 days and then released after pledging to leave the country within days.

Yacoub's arrest report by the Algerian police while passing through Tamanrasset (Al Jazeera)

Ibrahim and his companions had to cross to the Moroccan city of Oujda before the deadline expired, and the shortest distance between them and Tamanrasset is about 2,000 km, but they took a road that took them to the city of “Ain Saleh” (1350 km from Oujda), where they were stopped by the police for hours and then moved to The city of Blida (565 km from Oujda), where they stayed for a week, and from there to Oran (266 km from Oujda) and then Tlemcen (107 km from Oujda).

In Tlemcen, they contacted an Algerian smuggler who took them to a village adjacent to the Moroccan border. They stayed there for 3 days, then walked towards the border for 9 hours and were able to cross the border trench towards Oujda. There, a car took them towards the city and then another car to the city of Nador (136 km from Oujda). .

On the other hand, Yaacoub and his companions faced difficulties in Tamanrasset. After they went to board the bus that would take them to the Moroccan border, the police arrested them, detained them for 5 days, and then obtained documents allowing them to stay in Algeria for only 11 days and then leave.

At the detention center, Yaqoub met 27 Yemenis who were going to take the same road to Nador and a number of other Arabs and other deserters to the "European paradise" as everyone imagined and talked about.

“Yacoub and those with him went to the city of Maghnia (it belongs to the state of Tlemcen in the far west of Algeria), where they contacted a smuggler who took them to the Moroccan border and from there they crossed the border trench to receive the Moroccan police arresting them. They were interrogated and imprisoned for two days in the city of Oujda, and then they were returned to Algeria on foot. On foot with a severe warning to punish them in the form of return.

Yacoub paid $1,200 to the smuggler, but after the Moroccan police turned them back, he only returned $200 to them. After that, he contacted another smuggler who paid him $1,400, and housed them in a house on the border for 10 days, waiting for the move.

The smuggler arranged the crossing over a bumpy mountain road.

"This road was very difficult. We walked from evening to dawn, and at five in the morning we arrived at a village where a Moroccan car was waiting for us. Imagine 11 or 12 people plus the driver crammed into a small taxi!"

Jacob says.

On this trip, the smugglers had to drive very fast to escape the police chase, and once Yacoub and his companions arrived at the house that the smuggler provided in Oujda, other smugglers famously had weapons in their faces and demanded that they pay an additional $200, claiming that the car had been damaged by the police chase, and when Yacoub refused And his companions, citing their money running out, the smugglers took their phones by force.

Jacob says, "The sad thing during this experience was the great exploitation of us. We did not feel safe for ourselves and our money. The smugglers are risking us and our lives, as they have no value to them."

“Yacoub”, “Ibrahim” and other people crossing the Sahara to Europe expected the hardships of this route, but they did not fully realize its danger. Europe.

And it concerns the cases that have been revealed, as dozens or hundreds may die or be killed before reaching the port without anyone knowing about them.

The UNHCR and the Mixed Migration Center of the Danish Refugee Council stated in a report published in July 2020 under the title "On this journey no one cares if I stay alive or die" that death and atrocities accompany migrants who travel through Africa in the hope of reaching Europe.

The report notes that 1,750 migrants have died on land routes within Africa in the past two years.

More than 2,500 died via the sea route from Libya, and these numbers remain estimates, and it is assumed that the number of victims is greater than that.

For its part, the Spanish organization Caminando Frontiras, which monitors irregular migration flows to Europe, stated that 2,078 migrants died while trying to reach Spain across the Atlantic Ocean (to the Canary Islands) in the first six months of 2021, and the number is Thus, it has doubled 5 times compared to the same period of the previous year.

Nador is the gateway to Spain

Two African migrants overlooking the coastal city of Nador, their main destination on the migration route to Europe (Associated Press)

The Western Mediterranean Route connects Morocco with Spain through the Spanish-controlled cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

In 2015, 7004 transit cases were monitored, most of them from Guinea, Algeria and Morocco, then the number rose in 2016 to 9,990, an increase of 38%, and reached 23,063 in 2017, and doubled in 2018 to a record level of 57,034, according to "Frontex" reports.

In its report issued in 2019, the agency stated that the Western Mediterranean route to Europe has become the most used, noting that Morocco has become the main departure point for irregular migrants to Europe, and that most migrants on this route come from sub-Saharan countries.

Underage immigrants, or who claim to be, constitute 9% of them.

Morocco and Spain signed an immigration agreement in 1992, which requires respect for the borders of the two countries and the return of irregular migrants who used the soil of one of them to reach the other country.

Relations between the two countries were strained last May, after thousands of migrants crossed into Ceuta, and Madrid described the events as a "serious crisis for Spain and Europe" and called on Morocco to respect its commitments, and the crisis is still clouding the relations between the two countries.

Irregular migrants trying to jump over the fence into the enclave of Ceuta (European)

In the city of Fnideq, adjacent to Ceuta (only about 7 km), thousands of migrants are waiting for the opportunity to cross, as well as in the city of Nador (about 16 km from Melilla).

Youssef, who prefers not to mention his surname, is another Yemeni who took the trip and is currently residing in Brussels.

This city is the gateway to Europe, and there are various well-known ways and others invented by smugglers to cross, one of which is to obtain a passport for a similar Moroccan person from the city of Nador and the neighboring regions, who are allowed to enter with the passport only, while a visa is required for most Moroccans, and they are not authorized to All cases transit to Spain.

This is what Sultan did after waiting 3 and a half months in Nador.

Ibrahim paid $800 to a local smuggler who provided him with a passport for a person from Nador who was very similar to him, and after entering Melilla, he handed him over, according to the agreement, to a person inside the asylum center to return to the smuggler to sell or rent to others.

Those who can't afford a passport, like Jacob, have riskier options.

There are 3 gates in the port of Nador, the first is the "Bani Ansar" gate for passengers and cars, the second is for goods, and the third is for workers.

But these gates are closely guarded.

Jacob tried to cross through all of them many times, but all his attempts were unsuccessful.

"For two months, I tried every day to cross. I slept in the woods next to the Bani Al-Ansar Gate, at night I swim 5-6 kilometers, at dawn I tried to jump off the fence, and during the day I tried to get through the workers and goods gate."

The Yemeni young man did not despair despite successive disappointments. On one occasion he saw someone working with the smuggler and asked him to help raise him on the fence, so he did, and he jumped, “The situation was like a flash of a dream. I rushed to the Spanish gate, and the Spanish police tried to stop me, but an employee from the asylum center came and took me inside."

Yacoub stayed in the asylum center in Melilla for 50 days and then was transferred to Valencia (Spain), from where he took a bus with others to Belgium.

This journey cost the Yemeni young man about 6000 euros (about 7000 dollars) and a lot of hardship and horror, so he does not encourage anyone to go through this harsh experience, and no one puts his trust in smugglers who see migrants as things smuggled indifferently, he says.

"Many of those who took this road get sick and die, or suffer fractures or mental illnesses in any case. Imagine that you die and live several times when crossing the road. The first death for me was in Mali and the second death when the Moroccan authorities brought us back on our feet to Algeria."

Huge fortunes for smugglers

Irregular transit cases (2019-2020) according to the statistics of the European Border and Coast Protection Agency (Al-Jazeera)

According to a Frontex report, in 2017 and the first half of 2018, migrants paid between 500 euros ($600) and 1,000 euros ($1,200) to be smuggled from Algeria to Spain, and between 1,000 euros and 2,000 euros from Morocco to Spain.

But since mid-2018, the smuggling amounts on the Western Mediterranean route increased, and in the last quarter of 2019, these amounts amounted to 3,000 euros (3,650 dollars) per person.

Based on these data and the number of migrants monitored on the Western Mediterranean route, it can be estimated that the profits made by people smuggling networks operating in Morocco in 2017 amounted to approximately 35 million euros (42.5 million dollars), rising to nearly 105 million euros (127.5 million dollars). year 2018.

The total number of smugglers’ profits on this route, from Mauritania to Morocco and transit to Melilla, amounted to 50 million euros ($61 million), according to the Europol (European Police) report issued in February 2020, of which the share of smugglers in Morocco was 19 million euros. ($23 million) This is not counting the millions more that the smugglers may have obtained from migrants who never made it to Nador.

Irregular crossings into Europe (2020-2021) according to the statistics of the European Border and Coast Protection Agency (Al-Jazeera)

ووفقا لأرقام "فرونتكس" عبر 7800 مهاجرا غير نظامي إلى أوروبا في أبريل/نيسان 2021، ليكون المهربون بذلك قد غنموا 23.4 مليون يورو (28.4 مليون دولار) -على اعتبار أن كل مهاجر دفع 3000 يورو كمعدل وسطي للرحلة وفق التقديرات السابقة- أما في الأشهر الأربعة الأولى من عام 2021 التي شهدت عبور 36100 مهاجرا، يكون المهربون قد كسبوا 108.3 ملايين يورو (131.5 مليون دولار)، أي نحو 394 مليون يورو (477 مليون دولار) خلال عام، إذا استمرت نفس معدلات تدفق المهاجرين.

في هذا التحقيق وبناء على المعلومات التي حصلنا عليها راسلنا وزارة الداخلية الموريتانية مرتين لسؤالهم عن الشبكات الناشطة في تهريب المهاجرين بالبلاد، لكننا لم نتلق أي رد منهم إلى حتى إعداد هذا التحقيق للنشر.

على المستوى القانوني في موريتانيا، يفرض القانون رقم 025/2003، الصادر بتاريخ 17 يوليو/تموز 2003 المتعلق بمكافحة الاتجار بالبشر، والقانون الصادر بتاريخ 10 فبراير/شباط 2010 المتعلق بمكافحة تهريب المهاجرين غير الشرعيين المتورطين، بعقوبة لا تقل عن 5 سنوات ولا تزيد على 10 سنوات.

لكن ولأسباب مختلفة، يتناسل المهربون مع تزايد أعداد الوافدين من المهاجرين غير النظاميين إلى البلاد، خصوصا من الجنسيات العربية بحثا عن فرصة الوصول إلى الناظور عبر الصحراء أو إلى جزر الكناري عبر المحيط الأطلسي.

حصل يعقوب علي قرار اللجوء في بلجيكا، في حين ينتظر سلطان البت في إجراءات اللجوء التي عطلتها أزمة "كوفيد-19″ وهما يحاولان بدء حياة جديدة بعيدة عن الحروب التي دمرت بلديهما. وفي المقابل ينتظر العشرات وربما المئات فرصة الوصول حتى إلى تخوم أوروبا عن طريق" شيخنا" أو "عثمان" أو مهربين آخرين ينتشرون في بلدان الساحل والصحراء لاقتناص أحلام المهاجرين وتغذية أوهامهم بالنعيم الأوروبي.

أنجز التحقيق بدعم لمعده من قبل مؤسسة Fonds Pascal Decoros

إشراف: زهير حمداني