As Libyan Route Shuts Off, Migrants Turn To Tunisian Coast

Migrants landing in Italy in June
Migrants landing in Italy in June
Giacomo Tognini

We have seen far fewer grim accounts of rescues and drownings of would-be immigrants in the Mediterranean in recent weeks, as the human trafficking route-of-choice between North Africa to Europe shuts down. But another dangerous route appears to be opening up right next door.

The recent efforts to crack down on traffickers operating along the Libyan coast have led to a major decline in arrivals from a country still facing political instability and unrest. While the 3,900 people rescued during the month of August is still troubling, it's a major drop from 21,000 in August, 2016, Le Monde reports.

The first question is how has the migrant flow been reduced so drastically? Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera quoted local Libyan authorities saying that the Italian government, with the approval of the "national unity" government in Tripoli, paid "at least 5 million euros," to a local crime boss nicknamed "Uncle" to shut down the trafficking along the coastal region where he reigns.

You have to deal with the forces dominating on the ground, which often are often ambiguous.

"This is the reality of Libya," Hussein Dhwadi, mayor of the coastal city of Sabratha in western Libya, told Corriere della Sera correspondent Lorenzo Cremonesi. "If you want to take action, you have to deal with the forces dominating on the ground, which often are often ambiguous and even criminal."

But another source in Sabratha told Le Monde noted that other local crime bosses may want a piece of the action, and that "Uncle can change his mind at any time."

These reports raise serious questions about Italian and European policy in dealing with the unstable situation in Libya. But even slowing the flow from that country, inevitably, is far from a permanent solution to the crisis. Turin-based daily La Stampa reports that migrants are now beginning to flock to Libya's neighbor, Tunisia, which is even closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles away.

"News is spreading among migrants in Libya that the coast guard and militias are blocking departures from the Libyan coast, so many are now looking to Tunisia instead," said Reem Bouarrouj, head of immigration at the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTEDS), a Tunisian NGO. "Many are making the journey alone without the help of smugglers."

Tunisia shut its border with Libya after an assault by Islamic State fighters on the frontier town of Ben Guerdane last year. But according to La Stampa, Tunis reopened the border under pressure from locals who depend on cross-border trade — and the last few weeks have seen a surge in migrants arriving from Tunisia in Lampedusa and elsewhere on the island of Sicily. La Stampa also reports that the Tunisian coast guard has stopped several would-be migrants across the country.

The European Union has doubled its annual aid to Tunis to $1.4 billion over the next four years in a bid to support the government's efforts at reform and shore up its stability in a volatile region. Brussels hopes that this investment will help halt the formation of a new "Tunisian route."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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