Uphill battle for German authorities

Nico Pointner – DPA

6 minute read

More often than not, the efforts of German authorities to stop people smuggling are hampered by the very borders that are being breached, with neighbouring countries unwilling to do more, and the culprits often only small cogs in vast criminal enterprise.

BERLIN: Juergen Nissen is fed up with the small fry.

Again and again, they arrive at the German border, sometimes in vans, sometimes in cars, in camper vans and once even in an ambulance. Most of the time the vehicles are packed to capacity with their human cargo. Their destination is Denmark and there is little Nissen can do to prevent that.

He can detain the drivers before they cross Germany's northern border and interrogate them. He can listen in to phone conversations and put together the details. But then he frequently reaches the limits of his investigation because the masterminds of the people-smuggling business are often far away. 

Police and prosecutors fight an uphill struggle against the traffickers. The rigid bureaucracies of the security and judicial authorities are facing adaptable and flexible networks. There are hardly any fixed structures in the people-smuggling business. It is dominated by small cells and flat hierarchies.


Nissen has been fighting this battle for half his life. The 54-year-old heads a team of trafficking investigators in the German city of Flensburg. He recalls that in the 1990s it was mostly Palestinians who passed through on their way north. Then came migrants from China and Eritrea. Now it is Syrians and Iraqis who are fleeing war in search of a better life.

Nissen cares little for the drivers detained at the border, except when they name clients and contacts abroad. He is after the masterminds and backers of the business.

But this is also where his problems start. Germany is the final destination for many people smugglers and police can only investigate the last leg of the journey, as co-operation with the countries of origin is lacking.

The big shots in the human-smuggling business are based in countries like Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya or in other African countries.

Nissen's big fish sit in Syria. The police officer does not know their names. He only knows that they are two men living in a small town on the border with Turkey, and they are among the big masterminds of the people-smuggling business.

The two men have connections all over Europe, offices in Syria and in Turkey as well as liaisons in Bulgaria, he says. They have their own network along the route and the logistical capabilities to bring refugees to Europe by land or sea. These smugglers organise transport and accommodation, plan travel routes and provide drivers. They charge 10,000 euros for a complete trip, children pay half. They have been in business for years and made millions, says Nissen.

Since May 2015, Nissen has been on the trail of the two Syrians, slowly depriving them of business partners in Europe. Seven people are in prison. 

But the men pulling the strings can relax for now. Even if Nissen found out their real names, an international arrest warrant would be of little use to him. Currently, there is no mutual assistance between law enforcement in Europe and Syria. 

Even if the suspects dared to go to Turkey, it would be far from certain that local authorities would extradite the men, he says.


"A major culprit lingering in his own country has excellent cards," says Berlin senior prosecutor Petra Leister, who is in charge of convicting traffickers in the German capital. 

She also points out obstacles to prosecution within Europe, for example, problems with European arrest warrants. Some countries like Poland would not extradite if a crime had been committed partly in the country. She says that for a non-extraditing country, prosecution often is a low priority because either nothing had happened locally, or the migrants had only been smuggled through.

German police frequently shared their investigation results, but as far as they could see, cases were often not pursued, Leister says. And if a trial took place at all, the sentences were often much lower than in Germany. "In some countries, it is little more than a trivial offence," the prosecutor says.

She adds that the victims often do not regard themselves as such. They rarely reveal who their smugglers are, either because they are afraid or because they still want to bring relatives over. "Usually we find out next to nothing from the trafficked people," Leister says. The police are frequently left with the small fry, she concurs. In most cases, they get only the weakest link in the chain.

One of those links is Ibryam Hasan I. In August 2015, he had smuggled 32 Afghans into Germany, among them many children. Hasan I. says he did not earn enough in his job as a gardener and needed money for his family. He met two guys in Budapest and one of them told him about the job. He was promised 3000 euros on his successful return.

He was caught during a police check on a German motorway in Passau, southern Germany. After his arrest, he tells police about the two men, including "Toni, who lives in Italy", and gives them a phone number, which he claims belongs to his employer. But the information is buried in the police files in Passau. 

Back in 2015, the statement seemed too vague to warrant promising investigations abroad, the prosecutor's office says. And mobile phone numbers were mostly for prepaid SIM-cards, which make their owners hard to identify.

 In mid-March, the 24-year-old Bulgarian was sentenced to two years and three months in prison.

But sometimes a policeman like Nissen has a stroke of luck. 

In 2014, he was hot on the trail of Salah S. The Egyptian trafficking kingpin had brought hundreds of people from Milan in Italy to Denmark, using Romanian drivers and charging the migrants 750 euros each. In May 2014, Nissen's colleagues had caught a Romanian with four undocumented Syrians in his car. The vehicle was registered to Salah S., who had apparently forgotten his documents in the car. His car insurance papers, Egyptian passport and Italian residence permit ended up with Nissen.

But Salah S. wanted his papers back. The Egyptian had a friend send a fax to the police but did not get a reply. So Salah S. decided to go to Flensburg himself, as police found out by monitoring the suspect's phone. On May 30, 2014, the people smuggler walked into the police station, asking for his documents. 

Nissen was waiting with his handcuffs. He still cannot get over this. "Someone travelled 1500 kilometres just to get arrested by me. I never thought I'd live to see the day."