PALERMO, Sicily – Fleeing war, persecution and poverty, migrants desperate to reach Europe are paying thousands of dollars apiece to become pawns in a multimillion-dollar trafficking network that stretches from the Sahara to Sweden.
By the thousands, they're handing themselves over to abusive smugglers who hold them hostage in wretched conditions in Libya until their families cough up the cash to fund their trips, using companies like Western Union or more often the informal money transfer network known as hawala that is common in much of the Arabic world.
Those payments fund treacherous trips across the Mediterranean that have killed hundreds of people in recent weeks. And even if migrants survive the crossing, the exploitation doesn't end there: Smugglers, acting more like illicit travel agents than criminal gangs, arrange passage to safe houses in Sicily, buy bus tickets for new arrivals and even accompany their charges to their final destinations north, for thousands of dollars apiece.
Interviews with migrants, prosecutors, police and aid groups provide a portrait of the money trail that is fueling the record migration wave hitting Europe, creating a new migrant mafia that so far has sidelined Italy's traditional mobs. It's the Mediterranean piece of the global human trafficking pie that the U.N. says helps generate some $150 billion in illicit profits from forced labor each year.
"Human trafficking has become such a lucrative business for criminal gangs around the world it's probably rivaling the drugs trade," said Itayi Viriri of the International Organization for Migration.
It's a Thursday night and along a tree-lined parkway a 10-minute walk from Milan's Central Station, a small clutch of Eritreans who arrived in Sicily a few days earlier plot their next move. Their arrival coincided with the Mediterranean's worst shipwreck disaster, which claimed more than 800 migrants, nearly half of them Eritrean.
"I have no telephone and my relatives don't know if I am in the Sahara or in the sea," said Abrham Russom, fingering the one possession he still has: a silver ring with a cut black stone.
His mother has borrowed almost $4,000 to get him this far, a near fortune in a country where the average military salary is $10 a month and many flee to avoid forced conscription.
Russom says he left his wife and two children behind after he was imprisoned for six months for being accused of losing hundreds of travel passes in his job with the army in Asmara. He walked for 12 days through the desert to Sudan, lacking the travel documents necessary to pass police roadblocks.
There, he hooked up with smugglers who charged $1,600 to drive across the desert to Libya. The fee bought him a spot in the back of a Wrangler truck with 25 other people packed in four rows for the two-week journey.
He spent two months in Libya waiting for the funding to come through for the next leg of the journey: $2,000 to be ferried across the sea.
In both cases, Russom said, his mother back home in Eritrea gathered money from friends and relatives, making drop-offs that in retrospect seem more like ransom payments than down payments for a trip: Someone would call her and tell her where to drop the money, then instruct her to leave.
She never saw who took it.
Russom managed to avoid being fingerprinted by Italian authorities and wants to join his aunt in Sweden, the promised land for many new arrivals.
"If she can send money, I will leave Sunday," Russom says.
As director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, Meron Estefanos has come to learn the smugglers' modus operandi: "They go to refugee camps, approaching new arrivals and offering them a trip with no down payment," Estefanos said.
Many take the bait because they know their families would never put together the money up front.
"But once your loved one calls you from Libya, we know there is no way back across the Sahara, so you are forced to pay the smuggler," she said. "There is no other option."
Migrants themselves recount stories of handing themselves over to their kidnappers, who then blackmail their families to finally "free" them for the final leg of the journey.
Engida, an Ethiopian currently living in a Tripoli camp who asked to be identified only by one name because he feared for his life, says he has been "arrested" five different times by Libyan militiamen since he first came to the country in 2012 hoping to reach Europe. Each time, he has had to pay his way out, using person-to-person money transfers because migrants like him don't have legal status in Libya to open bank accounts.
"Details of the people receiving the money, place and time of dropping the money and type of car they will come with will be discussed by phone," he explained.
He recounted dramatically worsening treatment for migrants these days, with women being raped and migrants executed, robbed and cheated by their smuggler captors.
"There is no return home for me now. I have spent a lot of money already," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "I have taken money from family and friends. If I return, I will become an embarrassment."
"Though I don't have any money at the moment, I hope things will change one day and I will reach Europe," he says.
But it doesn't get much better once in Italy.
One of the 15 people arrested last week by Palermo police who broke up a small trafficking network lives near Mineo, Italy's largest migrant center in central Sicily. Migrants housed there are free to come and go, and often they slip away to meet "fixers" who arrange the final legs of their journeys.
"In my house, I have 117 of them, sleeping standing up," bragged one of the suspects caught up in the Palermo dragnet, according to phone calls intercepted by police.
From safe houses, operatives talk directly with anguished family members in Africa or more likely those who have already made it to Europe. A price is haggled over: maybe 200 to 400 euros to cover provisions, clothes and cell phones with pre-paid cards.
"After all the adventures they have been through — in Africa by land and if they were lucky after the trip by sea to Italy — the migrants or their families don't flinch at these last" demands for payment, said Maurizio Calvino, head of the Palermo police unit that led the investigation there.
The smuggling networks are "50 percent delivery services and 50 percent tour operators," said Palermo Chief Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi.
Remarkably, the organized crime group that doesn't have a piece of the action is Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. Calvino believes the Italian mob has stayed away simply because it doesn't have men in Libya, ground zero of the smuggling network.
"It's not their country, their language," he said.
Barry reported from Milan and Meseret from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. AP reporters Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, and Karl Ritter and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.