EU operation Sophia targets human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea /DW
EU operation Sophia targets human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea /DW

As thousands of migrants attempt to come to Europe, many of them rely on human smugglers to make the journey. Who are these smugglers, why do migrants come to them and how do the EU and other authorities deal with this illegal activity?

In 2015, a record high number of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia entered the EU. There were multiple reasons behind their coming to Europe, whether it be to find safety or for economic reasons. According to Europol, European Union’s law enforcement agency, over 90 percent of the one million irregular migrants in 2015 who arrived in Europe had used a service to "facilitate" their journey. This facilitation was offered by migrant smuggling networks.

These smugglers offer to help the migrants illegally reach a country of destination - but at a price. The smugglers demand a fee for their services and the migrants themselves often have to go into debt, taking jobs illegally along the way.

Smugglers offer to provide transportation to move the migrants along the route, places to stay and forge documents or  "visa smuggling" for the migrants to deal with authorities. One example of risk involved is how smugglers sometimes put up 100 migrants on one rubber dinghy across the Mediterranean towards Europe and then the boat sinks due to the weight.

Who are the smugglers and where do they operate?

According to a report released by Europol in 2015, the most common nationalities for those suspected of engaging in smuggling activity are Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Kosovo and Pakistan, among others.

Numerous hotspots outside the EU have been identified for migrant smuggling activity, among them many North African cities such as Algiers, Benghazi, Cairo and others. Cities such as Izmir in Turkey, Amman in Jordan and Beirut in Lebanon are mentioned, likely due to the Syrian civil war nearby. Within the EU, major cities such as Paris, Berlin and Rome are included.

The two main smuggling routes, as defined by Frontex, are the Eastern Mediterranean Route and the Africa and Central Mediterranean Route. The Eastern Mediterranean route is when migrants cross through Turkey and come to Greek islands in the Aegean. Most refugees coming this way tend to be Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The African and Central Mediterranean route features migrants from sub-Saharan Africa moving through states such as Libya and Egypt and  then crossing the Mediterranean sea.


How do the EU and the UN deal with smuggling?

In order to better deal with smuggling, the EU launched the European Migrant Smuggling Centre in 2016. The centre provides intelligence to various national governments on illegal smuggling activity. The European Migrant Smuggling Centre also helps countries like Greece and Italy deal with "hotspots,"  where smuggling might be occurring - most notably in Catania, Italy and Piraeus Greece.

Often smugglers resort to using social media to communicate with migrants. Platforms such as Facebook, Viber and Whatsapp are used by smugglers to advertise their services. EU members states such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Spain monitor smuggling activities on social networks. Europol Internet Referral Unit helps national authorities to investigate this content and remove it.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) specializes in fighting smuggling. In fact, they designed a "Smuggling of Migrants Protocol" which aims to "promote cooperation between states" in regards to fighting smuggling. The UNODC also trains law enforcement around the world to tackle smuggling through seminars.

What is the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking?

Both smuggling and trafficking feature illegal activity and a criminal network making a profit off this activity. The main difference is that migrants partake in smuggling voluntarily while trafficking is done against their, will with the threat of violence or abuse. Smuggling involves going illegaly over a border crossing, while trafficking can be done within national borders.

Author: Wesley Dockery


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