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Human trafficker with Ireland-based victims put on ‘most wanted’ list.

A notorious human trafficker with victims in Ireland, as well as across the rest of Europe and Africa, has been placed on the Netherlands’ “most wanted” criminals list, eight months after he escaped from prison in Ethiopia.

Eritrean Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam is described by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service as “one of the world’s most notorious and cruellest people smugglers”, wanted by “a large-scale international investigation into migration crime that is being conducted from the Netherlands”.

“Kidane is the head of a camp in Libya where thousands of migrants are living,” the notice read. “He is suspected of leading a criminal organisation that seeks to make as much money as possible on the backs of migrants. His victims are subjected to severe beatings, kidnapping, rape, and/or unlawful deprivation of liberty.

“Many do not survive the journey to Europe, and even if they do make it to the Netherlands, he extorts money from them by making them pay him for the next member of their family who is on their way to Europe.”

Notable smugglers

The Irish Times published an investigation last year that named Habtemariam as one of a number of notable smugglers and traffickers who have operated in Libya, transporting thousands of people into the country and holding them captive.

Once under his control, refugees and migrants were told they would have to pay a great deal more money for a journey to Europe. Victims were tortured on the phone while their families were forced to crowd-fund thousands of euro in ransoms.

Habtemariam was apprehended in Addis Ababa in February 2020, after one of his victims, Ethiopian Fuad Bedru, recognised him in the street. Charges ensued, but victims and witnesses complained that there was no international interest in the case and worried that Habtemariam would buy his way out of prison. This reporter was the only international journalist to attend the trial, and usually the only international observer.

Sentenced to life

In February 2021, Habtemariam escaped ahead of a court hearing. An investigation was launched into whether the policeman guarding him was responsible for the escape. Habtemariam was later sentenced to life in prison in absentia.

A Dutch investigative team is now encouraging anyone with information about his whereabouts to contact them.

“Why did they not care about him in the first place?” asked an Eritrean man who was held captive in the same Libyan compound that Habtemariam worked in, speaking to The Irish Times through WhatsApp under condition of anonymity. “Why not give him attention when he was arrested? Why not talk more then? Still there are [other] smugglers continuing [work] in Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia. Why not try to stop it?”

Refugee advocates argue that hardening European migration policies – particularly EU funding for the Libyan coast guard – have trapped tens of thousands of vulnerable people in a cycle where they move between traffickers and government-aligned detention centres in north Africa, encouraging smugglers and traffickers to hold onto captives for longer and extort them for more.

More than 82,000 men, women and children have been intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea since 2017 and forced back to Libya.

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