Profiting from misery – how smugglers bring people to Europe


With more than a million migrants arriving on the Greek and Italian shores last year, it is estimated that people smuggling networks made more than 4 billion Euros from their criminal activities. Most of the profits from smuggling migrants are used by criminal organisations to fund other illicit undertakings, such as the sale of illegal drugs and weapons.

Below we present the key facts about the two main routes used by criminal gangs to smuggle people, often under deplorable conditions, into Europe.

Eastern Mediterranean Route

The Eastern Mediterranean route is used by migrants crossing through Turkey to the Greek islands in the Aegean. Last year this passage saw huge migratory pressure, with the Greek maritime border with Turkey serving as the main crossing point to the EU. More than 870 000 migrants arrived on the Greek islands in 2015.

There are multiple smuggling networks operating along the Eastern Mediterranean Route which facilitate the sea crossing though the Aegean. Each of these networks controls a specific departure area.

The criminal networks serving specific hubs in Turkey (Izmir, Bodrum and Istanbul) are very efficiently organised. They recruit the migrants and organise transportation to the departure points on the coast. The networks also tend to serve specific nationalities (Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis). In addition to organising the sea crossing, smugglers give the migrants information about the asylum processes in different EU member states and sell them forged documents. The highest demand is for Syrian passports, identification cards, birth certificates and residence permits.

Many Syrians use social media to prepare for their trips and are well informed about the smuggling fees. This allows them to negotiate lower prices. In contrast, Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians often organise their journeys in their countries of departure, paying smugglers for the whole trip through Greece and then on to their final destination in Europe.

For some migrants the prices offered by smugglers are too high. According to intelligence gathered by Frontex there are cases when migrants (mainly Pakistanis and Afghans) organised the sea crossing themselves without relying on facilitators.

The sea journey from Turkey to the Greek islands mostly takes place on rubber boats, but sometimes also on larger fishing or leisure vessels.

The distance between the Turkish coast and Greek islands can be as little as 4 nautical miles (7.5 km) as is the case of Chios, or 5.4 nautical miles (10 km) as is the case of Lesbos. While this distance might be short, with unstable weather conditions and overcrowded and unseaworthy boats the death toll is high.

According to migrants’ testimonies, smugglers send migrants towards Greece despite difficult weather conditions, which leads to many tragedies at sea. Frontex has found evidence of discounts that were offered to those people willing to travel in bad weather. Rubber dinghies of about eight metres in length normally transport 40 to 60 migrants.

But rubber boats are not the only means of transportation offered by the smugglers – the latter also use yachts able to carry up to 60 migrants to transport them from Turkey directly to Italy. The journey is spent in better conditions, but it is also a lot more costly and longer: the average cost for a family to board such a yacht is around EUR 10 000 and can take up to one week. The smugglers, who have been involved in several shooting incidents to resist arrests, are usually on board such vessels themselves.

The route from Turkey to the Greek islands (Lesbos, Samos and Chios) is primarily used by Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals. They depart from their countries through different routes and border crossing points.

Many Syrian nationals cross the Syrian land border with Turkey with the help of smugglers. Others used to travel to Lebanon via Masnaa and then take a ferry or plane to Turkey, as the maritime and air connections between Syria and Turkey have been closed for over a year now. However, with the visa requirements introduced in January 2016 by Turkey for Syrians who arrive from a country other than Syria, a larger number of them are now expected to travel by land.

In the first half of 2015 nearly 50 per cent of Syrian nationals who reached Greece by sea had been residing in Turkey for some months or years prior to their departure. From July 2015 more and more Syrians departed directly from Syria, through Turkey to Europe.

Many Afghan nationals (mostly from the Hazara ethnic group) depart from Iran. Persecuted in Afghanistan by Sunni extremist groups on religious grounds many Hazaras (Shia Muslims) fled to neighbouring Iran. However, in the last two years the Iranian government changed its policy towards Afghans and has made it increasingly difficult for them to stay and work in Iran legally. Unable to return to Afghanistan, many decide to leave for the EU. The more affluent migrants buy a plane ticket to Istanbul, others move overland crossing the mountainous land border into Turkey.

The majority of the Iraqi nationals arrive on the Greek islands from the northern or central part of Iraq; they reach Turkey legally, then travel to the western coast to find a smuggling network to facilitate their journey across the Aegean Sea. However, the recent change in Turkish policy towards Iraqis (Turkey no longer grants them 30-day visas at border crossing points) might discourage some migrants from travelling on this route or to seek assistance from people-smugglers.

Africa and Central Mediterranean Route

In recent years people smuggling networks have become better organised and interconnected. In some cases the dangerous crossing from Sub-Saharan Africa into Europe would take months, or even years, with migrants being subjected to robbery, slavery, forced work, rape and torture.

Now the crossing of the land routes in Africa can take as little as a couple of weeks, but the risks to the safety of migrants remain extremely high.

In 2015, the route from Libya to the European Union was mainly used by migrants from the Horn of Africa and Western African countries.

What is characteristic of the smuggling networks in Libya is the proliferation of actors, ranging from ordinary Libyan citizens offering their services to migrants, to former militiamen and law enforcement officers. Due to the increasingly profitable business of smuggling migrants by sea, the crossing has become even more risky for the migrants as the networks start to compete with each other, which in turn affects the security of the migrants even more: migrants speak of cruel and aggressive smugglers forcing larger numbers of people onto the rubber boats, often at gunpoint, to squeeze more money from each trip.

The logistical chain of smuggling requires a high degree of organisation, suggesting involvement of people with experience in running large scale operations.

The journey across the African continent is a gruelling one that for many involves a dangerous desert crossing in an open truck speeding to avoid the authorities and criminals alike. It is impossible to calculate the number of people who do not survive this trip but it is likely very high. On this particular route, usually different smuggling groups tend to serve specific legs of the journey.

In contrast to that, the route from Eritrea seems to be controlled by one sophisticated network managing the whole journey, starting from Eritrea going through Sudan, and then into Libya. This means that the payment is made to the same network, usually using the Hawala system - an informal way of transferring funds based on honour code operating outside traditional financial channels. Hawala is mainly used in the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa and relies on a network of brokers.

Another group of people leaving the Libyan shores are migrant workers and contractors who had lived in Libya over the recent years, such as Bangladeshis who worked on oil and gas projects. Fearing the increasing level of violence and seeing their living conditions dramatically deteriorating, many decide to make the dangerous journey to Italy, using the existing smuggling networks in Libya to cross the Mediterranean.

The virtual absence of rule of law in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 appears to have created near-perfect operating conditions for criminal gangs. As a comparatively rich Muslim nation, Libya was a destination country in its own right for workers from around the world. Many of these, still resident in Libya, have found new work as ‘recruiters,’ liaising between the Libyan-controlled criminal gangs and would-be migrants pouring in to the country.

The tentacles of the gangs stretch deep into the Libyan interior. Frontex identified two principle overland routes to Tripoli. The eastern one, leading from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan towards Al Kufrah in the eastern Libyan Desert, is the most highly organized. The western route, from Mali, Nigeria and Niger up to Tripoli via Qatrun and Sabha, is more informal with regular bus lines used by migrants to reach Niger (Agadez). In both cases, however, the Libyan leg of the journey is jealously controlled by local militiamen, whose ranks have been swollen by former soldiers of the Gaddafi regime.

Role of Social Media

Online information has an immense effect on migrant smuggling. Social media is a popular tool used by smuggling networks to advertise their services and by migrants themselves to gather information about the journey ahead and to contact friends and relatives. For many people fleeing war or persecution, their smartphone is one of their most precious belongings.

Facebook pages are usually run by middlemen and resemble travel agencies, with photos, information on the price and route as well as useful tips for the journey. They include ratings of trustworthy facilitators, best routes, countries to avoid, as well as a blacklist of smugglers.

What is very characteristic is that these pages appear quickly and disappear just as fast, making them difficult to track. They are mainly used by tech-savvy Syrians and are written in Arabic.

Facebook pages also offer fake documents for sale, advertising themselves as travel agencies usually based in Turkey.

The people who are advertising their services on social media are aware of the risks and operate on multiple social media platforms. Typically they use applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber to discuss financial details and logistics of the smuggling operation.

See our short video explaining the main routes used by smugglers to bring people to Europe.


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