The complicated business of people smuggling

Stefan Vospernik – APA

10 minute read

VIENNA/BERLIN: Combating illegal migration has been at the top of the political agenda for years in many European countries. But why are governments unable to get a grip on the problem?

Two specialists from the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) in Vienna, Martin Hofmann and Veronika Bilger, offer their views, along with German security experts, who asked not to be named.

Q: How much do migrants  pay for illegal entry into Europe? 

A: Migrants being smuggled into Europe pay varying prices to travel along the more common routes stretching from the Middle East through the Balkans or from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. The ICMPD's Martin Hofmann and Veronika Bilger say migrants hand over $US200-$US300 to travel "third class" in an unseaworthy boat to Italy. Travelling illicitly by bus or rail along the Balkan route is more expensive, with prices escalating to around $US10,000 (8,900 euro) since 2015 as border patrols tightened. For those wealthy enough, $20,000 (17,800 euro) buys fake documents and a trip on a luxury yacht from Turkey to Italy.

Q: What is the price to reach Germany?  

A: Germany became a popular destination for illegal migrants after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the door to one million refugees in late 2015. Around 70 per cent of migrants travel to Germany via the Balkans, according to German security sources, with about 12 per cent arriving after crossing the Mediterranean and landing in Italy. 

A: BALKAN ROUTE: Migrants paid between $US4,700 and $US5,500 (4,200 and 4,900 euro) in 2016 to be smuggled from Afghanistan to Germany via the Balkans, while those travelling from Syria and Iraq paid up to $US4,000 (3,500 euro). But tighter border security measures have caused prices to rise by around 10 per cent since then. At the same time, new laws allowing illegal immigrants found on Greek islands to be deported has caused prices to collapse from $US800 to $US300 (700 to 260 euro) for migrants wanting to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece given their low chances of success. Those who travelled from East Africa across the Mediterranean paid between $US3,300 and $US5,000 (2,900 and 4,500 euro), excluding food and accommodation.

A: SMUGGLING BY AIR: Wealthy migrants pay at least $US25,000 (22,250 euro) per person to be smuggled in by air, according to the security experts. The price tag covers tickets, bribes, counterfeit documents and paperwork. Unlikely routes are sometimes taken in to disguise the origin of the smuggled person.

Q: How long do migrants spend on the road to Germany?

A: BALKAN ROUTE: In 2016, being smuggled from Kabul in Afghanistan to Germany took on average 240 days, according to German officials and investigators. People split the route into stages, often with long stays in Turkey and Greece. Migrants often get stuck in Serbia since neighbouring Hungary boosted its border security. People need on average six days to cross Hungary, and a further two in Austria.

A: MEDITERRANEAN: Refugees and migrants on the southern route, for example from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya, spend between a few days and a few weeks on the road. The time needed to reach Libya has increased this year as a result of moves to combat people smuggling, with detours sometimes taken through the desert. Migrants from East Africa need on average six to eight months to reach Italy. From Syria or Iraq the journey takes around 180 days on average over the routes used by the smugglers. Sometimes people can be on the road for more than two years. 

Q: What are the guarantees?

A: People smugglers guarantee that the agreed country of destination will be reached, according the ICMPD experts. When crossing the border fails, repeated attempts are made until success is achieved. But following the closure of the most common route through the Balkans in 2016, costs have risen. For $US10,000 (8,900 euro) migrants can make the journey from the Middle East to Central Europe in a few weeks.

Q: How much money changes hands in the smuggling business? 

A: German security experts and Austrian specialists estimate the total turnover for travelling to Western Europe along all the routes, including the Far East, to be $US3-4 billion (2.7-.3.5 billion euro). This covers costs for the smugglers, accommodation and food. The figure was thought to be as high as $US6 billion or more in 2015 at the height of the wave of illegal migration to Europe. These experts estimate net profits to the smugglers are worth up to $US 3 billion. Over 2016 up to $US580 million (516 million euro) was generated in Libya alone from smuggling.

Q: How does one purchase and pay for an illicit trip to Europe? 

A: Usually, a migrant goes to a trusted person in their home country to reach a deal. Having the same background is important, according to the ICMPD's Veronika Bilger, to ensure trust between the family and the facilitator. The smuggler receives the money, deposited by a trusted third party, once the person has reported their arrival in the country of destination. But there are other deals as well. People can contact smugglers operating independently at each staging point. The ICMPD experts say that often half of the agreed sum is paid to the smugglers before crossing the border and the other half afterwards.

Q: Can the smugglers afford to risk the lives of customers? 

A: Previously, smugglers went out of business if their network showed a high death rate or if  people were poorly treated or ended up where they didn't want to be. But current high demand means that "bunglers" are now at work. In Libya, for example, migrants are simply pushed out to sea, the ICMPD's Martin Hofmann says. This explains the high death rates in the Mediterranean, because the risk of death while in transit can be lower than the risks of staying in Libya.

Q: How is the "success" of smuggling documented? 

A: The migrant takes a selfiein front of a well-known site, for example Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral, the ICMPD's Veronika Bilger says. This photo is sent home, and - according to the deal - the money is transferred to the criminal.

Q: What is the role of counterfeiting workshops in smuggling?

A: An extremely important one, German investigators say. This involves not only falsifying documents like passports and driver's licences, but also threatening letters from the Taliban for presenting to European authorities as proof of the need to flee. There have also been cases of university degrees being falsified.

Q: What do falsified documents costs on the black market? 

A: A migrant can obtain a Bulgarian passport for $US900 (800 euro) on the black market, according to the German security experts. Around $US2,200 (2,000 euro) changes hands for a genuine Syrian passport taken from looted official stocks. A complete set of driver's licence and birth certificate costs between $US5,600-$US11,200 (5,000 and 10,000 euro). Passports that will pass a check at international airports can be had for around $US2,250 (2,000 euro). Well-equipped and competent counterfeiting workshops are found in Turkey and Bulgaria, according to investigators. These workshops can make Italian ID cards, as well as French, Spanish and German documents.

Q: Can illegal entry be booked over the internet?

A: This has not yet been seen in Europe, Hofmann and Bilger say. But it can't be ruled out in the future. There are already websites where smuggling is offered openly, along with photographs, phone numbers and prices. There are already platforms rating smuggling organisations.

Q: Why don't the migrants break up the smuggling networks? 

A: There are many complex reasons for this. If a successful migrant wishes to bring out his partner to join him in six months' time, he doesn't want to ruin his chances by revealing what he knows to the authorities, the ICMPD migration experts say. What counts for the customers is that the smugglers deliver.

Q: What role do locals play?

A: These are the people facilitating the actual crossing of borders -locals who know the area. If it were only up to outsiders and smuggling bosses the system wouldn't work, police sources in Europe say. 

Q: What roles do mobile devices and social media play in people smuggling?

A: In the past, the smugglers took mobile phones and passports away from the migrants immediately, ICMPD's Veronika Bilger says. Today the internet and GPS navigation systems are part of the business. The smugglers take a photograph of a porous point on the border, share it, and soon thousands of people can be informed and mobilised. 

Q: Is it possible to end illegal migration?

A: Open and economically interlinked societies can certainly reduce illegal migration, but not halt it completely, the ICMPD's Martin Hofmann says. The threat of death or injury is the only way of completely preventing illegal crossings, he says, much like the "death strip" on the border between East and West Germany prior to 1989.

Q: Is combating the smugglers more difficult or easier than other organised crime?

A: The ICMPD experts say the fact that people are being moved, rather than commodities like drugs, makes it easier for authorities to disrupt the trade. People are noticed. They have to be looked after and are difficult to hide.

Q: Could security authorities do more to combat smugglers?

A: The focus is presently on blocking illegal entry by migrants. Operations aimed at countering transit through other countries are complex and much less common, but having significantly more cross-border operations would presumably greatly disrupt the smuggling business, the ICMPD experts say.

Q: How are smuggling networks organised?

A: The players, roles and tactics differ between regions, according to the ICMPD. There is a clear division of labour: someone is responsible for the money, another for drivers, someone else takes care of the documents and  another is in contact with the customers. 

Q: What is known about smuggling structures ?

A: The precise structure differs depending on the route,  both the German security experts and ICMPD report. In Afghanistan there are networks that extend from Kabul into western Turkey. The smugglers are thought to know each other, but there is no mafia-like structure  with bosses controlling from the top. In Libya many Tuareg (a group of semi-nomadic Islamic African people) are involved in the smuggling. But families are not always in agreement. Within the clan structures certain branches of the family are involved in Islamic State. Others are involved in smuggling fuel and others in people. These structures are seen as complementing each other. The lowest branch of the family is often responsible for smuggling people, the German experts believe. 

Q: How quickly can smuggling routes change?

A: Within just four weeks in 2015 there was a complete switch of routes from the central Mediterranean region to the Balkan route. No state or single mafia organisation would have been capable of this, Hofmann and Bilger point out. This demonstrates once more that illicit migration is a huge decentralised network, which is able to react rapidly and effectively to a change in conditions on account of the wide diversity of actors involved.