Refugee smuggling is a big, bad business

Scott Tong Aug 28, 2015
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Refugee smuggling is a big, bad business

Scott Tong Aug 28, 2015
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Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis appears to be getting worse by the day. In Austria, a truck found full of decomposed bodies is now believed to have held 71 people, including 12 women and children. The police say they were likely refugees from Syria. And an estimated 150 people drowned off the coast of Libya when a boat enroute to Italy sank.

Most of these people would not have even started their journey were it not for the fact that so many people want to get into the people-smuggling business. These shadowy entrepreneurs create and maintain the routes to Europe’s borders and beyond. They are rarely masterminds controlling an entire route. Rather, they mostly make up a network middlemen who charge refugees a toll along the way. The costs add up quickly. In many cases, only people of means can afford the attempted trip.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, refugees who survive a harrowing boat ride from Turkey have reason to celebrate.

“We tried two times to come here,” one unnamed refugee told the BBC. “The first time they let us come back to Turkey and the second one we succeed.”

She’s still got a long way to go — through Greece, and then on to Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. And at each point, she may have to strike a deal with a different smuggler. Often the middlemen trick refugees by offering teaser rates and then racking up the bill.  

“They start little, and then on the way they make you pay more and more,” United Nations refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch says from the Hungarian border. “If you don’t pay here, you don’t pay there, then you are going to end up like this and like that.”

Often the price of transport varies, depending on the traveler. In Libya, across the Mediterranean from Italy, boat smugglers charge Syrians the most, upwards of a thousand dollars.

“The Libyans consider Syrians the most affluent of all the migrants,” says Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. “They will be charging top dollar to put them on a boat to Italy, all the way down to, say, a West African from Mali or Togo might be charged 400 Euros.”

 That’s about $450 dollars. But before you board a life-threatening fishing boat ride, you have to get yourself to a North African port. For many, that requires a trip across the Sahara Desert. Patrick Kingsley, migration reporter at the Guardian newspaper in Tunisia, says that’s when refugees or migrants are particularly vulnerable.

“The way that they pay is by being kidnapped and essentially held for ransom,” Kingsley says. “It’s very common for the smugglers to put a phone to their lips while they are being tortured. And they are forced to call their families, who then have to wire money to the smugglers. It might be one thousand dollars, it might be much more. It just depends on how much they think your family is worth.”

Kingsley says a migrant taking an African route to Europe may encounter five stages of smuggler payments. And the migrant may pay multiple times at every one of those stages to drivers, militiamen, boat owners and border guards.

Tong spoke with Kingsley about the business of smuggling refugees. You can hear the entire interview below:

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