Brussels confirms Dubai, Alexandria are transit points into Libya for Bangladeshi migrants

European Commission unaware of investigations into criminal groups and use of Cham Wings for people smuggling

Brussels is unaware of investigations into criminal groups using Syrian airline Cham Wings to traffick people into Europe, European Home Affairs  Commissioner Ylva Johansson said.

But she did confirm that Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Alexandria in Egypt served as transit points between Dhaka in Bangladesh and Benghazi in Libya for Bangladeshi nationals.

Replying to a parliamentary question by Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer, she said Brussels was “closely monitorring” the central Mediterranean migration route, including the transfer of Bangaldeshi nationals from Libya to Italy.

“There are indications that the routes used to reach Libya from Dhaka (Bangladesh) are direct connections between Dubai and Benghazi or Alexandria and Benghazi... the Commission has no information on investigations concerning illegal activity by criminal groups  using specific airlines like Cham Wings and others,” Johansson replied.

Engerer’s question was prompted by a MaltaToday report earlier this year that revealed Frontex intelligence on how Bangladeshi migrants are being smuggled aboard charter flights into Libya where they get onto boats to reach Europe.

The confidential Frontex report seen by MaltaToday singled out Cham Wings as one of the airlines used by the criminal groups to smuggle people between Damascus in Syria and Benghazi in Libya.

Cham Wings is owned by Syrian businessman Issam Shammout. The airline is part of his family business, the Shammout Group, which is active in the automotive, steel, aviation, freight forwarding, construction, and real estate sectors.

On 20 July last year, the EU lifted sanctions against Cham Wings, after the company was blacklisted in December 2021 for its alleged role in ferrying migrants seeking to cross illegally into Poland from Belarus that summer.

However, a day later the EU placed Shammout on its sanctions list, calling him a “leading business person operating in Syria”.

Shammout is contesting the sanctions against him at the European Court of Justice.

Cham Wings, which does not operate to EU countries, remains subject to US sanctions and pressure is building within the EU to follow suit.

The Frontext report shed light on what was a relatively new phenomenon of Bangladeshi migrants trying to shortcut the legal channels to come and work in Europe by hooking up with people smugglers who utilised chartered flights for the first part of the journey.

In its reply the Commission told Engerer that talks on migration and mobility between the EU and Bangladesh in March this year established a permanent forum to stop people smuggling.

The Commission also noted that on 6 June it proposed new legislative, operational and diplomatic measures to deal with the increasing illicit use of commercial transport by criminal networks to facilitate irregular migration into the EU.

The proposed toolbox includes measures to “suspend or revoke the operating licence of an EU air carrier” if they no longer meet the good repute requirements of transport legislation. Another proposal is to strengthen cooperation and information exchange between the Commission, Frontext and Eurocontrol to better monitor flights and gather data on emerging routes and patterns of irregular migration.

The issue of chartered flights ferrying immigrants to Benghazi was recently raised by a high ranking Maltese government delegation in a first meeting with eastern Libya’s supreme commander General Khalifa Haftar. The Maltese government’s delegation included the permanent secretary for the foreign affairs ministry and the Cabinet secretary.

Eastern Libya is governed by the House of Representatives and Haftar, both of which are not recognised by the international community as the legitimate representatives of Libya.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni earlier this year held meetings with Haftar, in a bid to bridge with eastern Libya where the internationally recognised Government of National Accord wields no power.

With migration route along the western shores of Libya practically being stifled, most migrants reaching Italy are now leaving from the east, or from Tunisia.