EU death toll: Experience shows walls and arrests won’t end migrant smuggling

europe-migrants-eu-austria-266x266Europe is reeling from the failure of its policies towards the ongoing “migration crisis”.  The callous inhumanity of the smuggling trade is no longer just to be seen lapping at the southern shores, but is now evident in the very heart of the Eurozone.  This week’s discovery of 70 decomposing bodies in a truck in Austria, thought to be migrants, including women and children is a tragedy indeed.  And it comes on the back of last month’s deaths in the Channel Tunnel at Calais, and in parallel to the constant flow of fatalities and rescues in the Mediterranean and Aegean.

Europe’s dominant response remains to build more walls, to reinforce the fences, whilst – save Germany, who recently flouted the increasingly controversial Dublin Regulation to accept applications from all Syrians – little has been done to address the burgeoning demand, offer legal channels for asylum seekers or to boost funding for assistance to the millions of refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

The Global Initiative has now conducted over 100 interviews with individual migrants of all nationalities along different points in their journeys en route to Europe, in Italy, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Libya and Egypt, asking them about their motivations, experience and future intentions. We have also been charting and analyzing the changing trends in human smuggling across sub-Saharan Africa for several years now. Dynamics are changing very rapidly, and the manifestations seen by Europe: increasing death tolls, abuse, violence and exploitation are trends that are interconnected to criminal networks being drawn to this increasingly lucrative and irrepressible flow.

The number of people that are now looking for passage to Europe is unprecedented and overwhelming, and they are coming along an amazing panoply of routes, using a variety of modes of transport.  But what is ubiquitous is the use of smugglers.

A month ago, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published “American Coyotes,” a remarkable series of stories on migrant smuggling across the border from Mexico to the United States.  In words and in pictures, this investigation presented a detailed exposé of the workings of the ‘coyotes’ working the migrant-smuggling industry on America’s southern border. With the smuggling of migrants to Europe receiving unprecedented levels of media coverage and funding in recent months, the Tribune-Review’s series serves as a useful reminder that this is a global, rather than merely a European, challenge, and offers a foresight of how the situation might evolve.

The unlucky occupants of the van found this week, who are assumed to be Syrians, to get to Austria they would have come along a combination of the Eastern Mediterranean and “Balkan Route” through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary before arriving in Austria.

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Source: The Guardian

This route has now become more popular than the “Mediterranean route” through Libya, with the numbers of Syrians and others from the Middle East, swelled by Afghans and Pakistanis who are coming in increasing numbers. Reports from our interviews with migrants from Afghanistan, for example, indicate a belief among Afghans that European attention to the issue of migration and the potential for new resettlement has improved their chances of successfully seeking asylum. Thus, Afghans are seizing the opportunity migrating more aggressively.

In the current climate in Europe, there has been a lot of ‘opportunistic’ smuggling, with ordinary citizens, often from European countries themselves seizing the opportunity to earn a quick payout by moving a small group across the border.

The  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article begin with a surprising statistic: of the 3,254 people convicted of smuggling migrants from Mexico into the United States in 2013 and 2014, 60% were American citizens. The authors found that Americans are the predominant nationality among people who drive migrants across the border, report on the movements of Border Patrol officers, bring migrants from the border to a safe house inside American territory, and take care of the safe houses while migrants await the next phase of their journeys. The only activity more likely to be performed by Mexicans than by Americans is the guiding of migrants across the border on foot, rather than in a car.

The reason for this predominance of Americans among the coyotes is simple. When crossing from Mexico to the United States, the challenge is to not get caught by American border police, because illegal entrants who are caught are immediately returned to Mexico. Therefore, Americans are preferred for the border crossing, because they are the least likely to attract suspicion from the border guards.  The high-security border fences and high presences of local, state, and federal law enforcement along the border mean that migrants are unlikely to make it on their own, so they are forced to resort to smugglers in order to avoid an immediate return to Mexico.

We are seeing an emergence of these types of ‘quick-buck’ entrepreneurs along all the major migrant routes, from the coasts on the Aegean, to the channel tunnel at Calais and everywhere in between.  As the human smuggling trade becomes increasingly lucrative, it is also attracting all manner of organized crime groups.

But it is not whether the smugglers are opportunistic or organized that necessarily makes the difference to the likely well-being of the migrants.  Our analysis shows that this is more a feature of the relative challenges presented in transit, the profile and purchasing power of the migrants themselves, and to a certain extent, chance.

In the case of the van in Austria, given the number of people that were inside, it is more likely that this was a more organised group.  But this doesn’t necessarily make them violent, unreliable or killers.  Why?

Firstly because the Syrians are the most organised and informed of migrants currently transiting along the route. They are also the most lucrative for smugglers. Due to modern communications technology and the proliferation of social media there is near constant communication among Syrians at source and in transit. The reputation and reliability of the smugglers is very important in their ability to make money.

Secondly, Syrians are the nationality most likely to request long journeys upfront, with a preferred final destination in Europe. To meet this demand is obviously very complex for the smugglers to organize: they need to coordinate multiple legs, borders, and corrupt the necessary officials along the route. Syrians using these services are less likely to pay upfront, but to use a system by which they pay for legs in installments, with money being held in “escrow” by a trusted third party and released to the smuggler as they safely reach certain checkpoints, or until they their final destination.

A group of 70, such as those found in the van in Austria, could be worth around $100,000 to a smuggling group, so it is highly unlikely they would leave those funds unrealized. It is more realistic to assume that something went wrong here. Demand is now so high that is flooding even the established smuggling groups’ logistical capacity. They are likely to be recruiting additional drivers and facilitators, using people who are untested, and it is possible in this case there was a ‘weak link’ in a chain and that a handover that was meant to happen did not: someone who was meant to collect the van to take it from Austria to elsewhere in Europe didn’t show up, was scared, or threatened.  Or perhaps the driver discovered that the people in the back had died of asphyxiation en route and didn’t know what to do with them so he left the vehicle and absconded.

If the intention really was not to deliver this group to the destination, it is highly unlikely that smugglers would leave them in a situation that is so easy to detect, and where considerable intelligence can be gathered. Abuse or abandonment is far more likely to occur with sub-Saharan Africans who have less purchasing power, are more vulnerable, and further from EU territory where the capacity of law enforcement for intelligence gathering is high.

In the American investigation, they noted that having crossed the border from Mexico, irregular migrants to the United States risk being abducted by their smugglers and held for ransom in so-called stash houses. These stash houses are scattered all across the southwestern United States, from small towns in the Texas countryside to central Houston, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country. In some instances, the migrants’ captors who run the stash houses have been linked to Mexican drug cartels and other criminal networks south of the border.

Similarly, Migrants from Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, for example, are routinely captured by members of the Rasha’ida ethnic group, who traffic the migrants into Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula and hold them for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Along the Libyan coast, migrants face similar dangers, with reports of abduction for ransom and torture common in cities including Tripoli and Zuwara. Once the migrants arrive in Europe, however, such reports become very unusual. Again, why?

Because up until recently, the challenges of moving through Europe were relatively low: the Schengen zone meant that there were few barriers, and there was broadly little interest on the part of law enforcement to stop or prosecute either smugglers or migrants.  It is only as this paradigm has changed, that the risk has increased.  The need to avoid detection leads to risky behaviors that can have terrible consequences, as when 14 migrants were killed after being struck by a train while walking along a rail bed in Macedonia in April 2015. In between stages of their journey, migrants are often forced to seek shelter in conditions ranging from unsanitary to appalling, such as in the infamous “Jungle” camp in Calais, France. The constant, overarching fear of being detected and deported only adds to the physical and psychological stress.

These differences in security apparatuses and levels of physical safety are reflected in the costs that migrants must pay in Europe and in the United States. The “American Coyotes” investigation found that undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America pay an average of US$3,095 to go from the Mexican border to Houston, a journey of about 565 kilometers (US$5.48 per kilometer). For the even shorter journey to Phoenix, Arizona, migrants pay more than double the price per kilometer (US$11.63) due to the risk of detection. By contrast, in 2015 a Syrian migrant reported paying US$970 for the 1,465-kilometer trip from Milan to Malmö, Sweden, which averages to US$0.66 per kilometer, and such prices are the norm rather than the exception in Europe. In other words, the greater the challenge that migrants face in crossing a border, and the greater the threat to their persons once they do cross it, the more money smugglers can charge for passage.

The policy implications of this last point are enormous and timely. In the face of sharp increases in the flows of irregular migrants, several European countries have recently announced the construction of border fences or other such security measures, questioned the viability of the Schengen zone, and the public outcry following the deaths of the Austrian van has resulted in calls for more aggressive efforts to crack-down on the smuggling trade.

As the American example makes clear, however, this is not the way to deal with the problem of migrant smuggling.  In 2014, the US Government spends Fiscal Year 2014 budget for the Border Patrol totaled US$3.635 billion.  18,127 of the 20,863 United States Border Patrol officers are deployed along the 3,145-kilometer Mexican border. The state of Texas alone has an $800 million budget for security along its section of the Mexican border, which includes military technology, drones and the continued deployment of Texas National Guard troops at key border crossings.  Yet despite the imposing barriers, dangerous heat and inherent risks in turning themselves over to people smugglers, migrants continue to attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border by the hundreds of thousands.

Rather than deterring migrants, the response of high fences and law enforcement action serves only to enrich smugglers by allowing them to charge migrants higher fares for the crossing. The highly-securitized nature of migration near the border can then be exploited for a second payday, in the form of ransoms extorted from captive migrants.


Credit:  Jorgen Carling

A further challenge is that as the migrant flow become ever more lucrative, it attracts criminal groups like flies to jam.  Experience of criminal groups in almost all contexts shows that where there is a new high profit activity, there is likely to be violent competition, especially when government policies push the phenomenon further underground.  We are seeing a proliferation of “new entrants” into the smuggling trade, as currently, the majority of migrants are working with (diaspora) smugglers of their own nationality or region (e.g. Eritreans with Eritreans and Sudanese; Syrians with Syrians and perhaps Iraqis, Nigerians and Ghanaians with Anglophone West Africans; Senegalese with Francophone West Africans – etc) to transit through Europe.  Where these cross regions where there were established organised crime groups operating – Eastern Europe being a prime example – violence may result as the smuggling groups compete over control over the routes and access to the migrant flows.

In order to save migrants from exploitation, stop its own citizens from turning to criminality (by becoming coyotes), deny criminal networks a burgeoning revenue stream and prevent rising violence, European countries should learn lessons from the American experience, and tear down, rather than build, border fences.

Robert Frost was wrong: good fences do not, in the end, make good neighbours.

Thanks to Adam Rodriques for his inputs and research for this blog.

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