Human traffickers are passionate supporters of the European Union’s 20-year-old Schengen Agreement. They view the open-border accord -- which eliminated customs checks within the 28-nation bloc -- as a big help in smuggling people.
But so much illegal trafficking is going on that it is spilling into the open in the Mediterranean, where 300 refugees were feared dead this week after another tragic accident at sea.
Four rubber dinghies with 100 west Africans capsized en route from Libya to Italy, according to the United Nations refugee agency, based on accounts from survivors.
Only nine refugees survived. The others are missing or believed to have drowned.
On Sunday, 29 refugees died from hypothermia and more than 2,000 were rescued after their boat was stopped at sea.
The latest reported death tolls, if confirmed, would means more than 400 refugees have died in the Mediterranean since the start of this year.
Hundreds of thousands of people are willing to pay nearly any price – and risk their lives – to enter Europe.
They come from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Some are refugees fleeing homes because of war and persecution. Some are immigrants seeking a better life. Asylum proceedings determine who is a refugee to be protected under the Geneva Convention and who is an immigrant, subject to approval by national authorities.
Last year, 181,453 people applied for asylum in Germany.
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, 5.5 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2014, with war-torn Syria accounting for 3 million. According to E.U. border patrol agency, Frontex, most refugees tried to come to Europe via boat from Libya, Egypt and the Turkish port city of Mersin, a smuggling haven for Syrian refugees.
As many as one million people are estimated to have been smuggled into western Europe via traditional routes used for drugs and weapons.
Last year, 163,368 refugees from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan reached Italy, four times more than in 2013.
But 3,420 people lost their lives trying to make the journey.
Pro Asyl, an asylum seeker interest group, estimates that 20,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean over the last 25 years. The Italian navy, which was responsible until last November for the E.U. “Mare Nostrum” rescue operation, pulled 100,000 people out of the water in 2014.
In January, two boats with thousands of passengers were found drifting aimlessly at sea. The human traffickers had put the boats on autopilot before abandoning them. Minutes later, both crashed into rocks but stayed afloat. The passengers, mostly Syrian war refugees, had each paid around €4,000, or €3,535, to make the trip.
The criminals organizing it had paid roughly €250,000 for the boats, helpers, food and lodging, and another €200,000 to bribe corrupt border and harbor officials. Their profit was estimated at €3 million to €4 million.
Those hoping to reach Greece by sea or land from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan can expect to pay €3,500 to €11,000. Anyone caught crossing the border by Greek police is held in camps where European human rights standards are often not upheld. The detainees live in overcrowded cells and have little exercise, bad food and no medical care.
The western route for Africans starts in Mali and Senegal before meeting the central route, which begins in Nigeria, Ghana and Niger. The eastern route from Somalia, Eritrea and Darfur via South Sudan ends like all of them in the Maghreb, where refugees wait for boat passage across the Mediterranean.
Thousands of refugees are kept as slaves or prostitutes until they can afford the next journey.
Some enter western Europe via eastern countries, buying fake visas for €1,000 apiece. More than 3,600 criminal organizations, including the Russian mafia, Italy’s 'Ndrangheta, Japan’s Yakuza, Chinese triads and South American cartels, are involved in human trafficking in Europe, according to Europol.
To curb the flow, Germany has sent experts to the Mediterranean region.
In one year alone, they discovered 20,000 forgeries. Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German party member of the European Parliament, said E.U. countries are still “spending only tiny sums on joint investigation teams from Europol and Eurojust to probe organized crime, despite the positive results.”
Illegals have no official transit papers.
They work in the shadows, avoiding authorities who could send them back.
That is why it is impossible to know their true numbers. In Germany, the city-state of Berlin is responsible for accepting 5 percent of all asylum-seekers. But an estimated 20 percent of all illegal immigrants in the country are believed to be in the German capital, where they try to hide in the anonymity of the big city.
As many as 1 million people are estimated to have been smuggled into western Europe via traditional routes used for drugs and weapons. These include the Maghreb route from North Africa to the Mediterranean; the Balkan route through Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Albania; the eastern route through Russia and the Ukraine; and the central route over Istanbul, Athens, Kiev, Warsaw, Moscow and Prague.
Nowhere in Europe are the refugees truly welcome. They are tolerated in some areas and exploited in others. And as soon as they ask for an opportunity to earn a living, they encounter xenophobia.
The fear of the foreign isn’t just limited to Germany’s Pegida movement in Saxony, a state where more neo-Nazis than Muslims now live. The upstart political party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is also part of the upsurge in support for right-wing populists across Europe.
Refugees from Eritrea and Somalia, for instance, are given free passage to Europe if they are prepared to be drug mules.
Thanks to globalization, rival criminal gangs work together smuggling weapons, drugs and people.
They have become one-stop shops of sorts: Refugees from Eritrea and Somalia, for instance, are given free passage to Europe if they are prepared to be drug mules.
The drugs are then traded by Italy's 'Ndrangheta or the Hells Angels to their Russian or Albanian mafia colleagues in exchange for young women to work in brothels in Italy and Germany, or for cheap labor for the meatpacking industry and on farms in northern and central Europe.
According to the International Labor Organization, some 600,000 people are working as slave laborers in Europe.
Warsaw-based Frontex is responsible for securing Europe’s external borders.
If the civil war in Syria sent a flood of refugees into one or more European countries, Frontex could send a Rapid Border Intervention Team, or Rabit, to deal with the situation.
The international group has 20 planes, 25 helicopters and 100 speedboats at its command.
Frontex’s missions at sea, however, are controversial.
Amnesty International recently criticized the brutal behavior of Rabit units. On one occasion, Frontex forced overfilled boats of refugees carrying women and children nearly dying of thirst to change course and turn back.
Frontex prevented the refugees from reaching Europe, but critics ask: At what price?
Europol, the European Parliament and the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, are pleading for joint investigation teams to combat traffickers across borders. They see a need not only for drones, surveillance devices and infrared cameras, but also for information about methods, routes, and means of transportation used by criminals.
Of the 3,600 regional, national and international criminal organizations, 30 percent are devoted to drug trafficking.
The others deal mostly in weapons and people. And they are more international than ever. Belgian police recently broke up a gang with members from 35 nations and Portuguese police penetrated a cell with members from 60 nations.
The argument that flow of refugees from Africa will continue if nothing is done locally to battle the causes may be old – but it remains valid.
After Maummar al-Qaddafi’s fall from power, smugglers built bases on the coast of Libya.
The nightly trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, only 150 kilometers from the African mainland, costs €1,000 per person. Families receive a group rate depending on the number of children. Business flourished until a ship with 380 people went down off the Lampedusa coast in the summer of 2013.
The flow of refugees from Africa will continue if nothing is done locally to address the causes behind the flight.
Only when corrupt African dictators who receive billions in western development aid are recognized as a cause will the situation improve.
The issue of settling asylum seekers has divided E.U.nations.
Most refugees want to go to countries with functioning social systems, such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Germany. The Dublin II Regulation requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first E.U. countries in which they arrive. Some European countries try to push asylum seekers to their neighbors or send them back.
Such was the case in Italy where authorities gave refugees from Somalia and Eritrea 90-day visas, €500, train tickets and sent them on their way out of the country.
But first, their fingerprints were saved by EuroDat, the information system used by police, justice departments and border officials in the Schengen nations.
The country where refugees arrive is responsible for granting or refusing residency permits.
But Europe needs to do much more. A start would be campaigns run in poverty-stricken countries warning unskilled would-be refugees that without a diploma, they have little chance of finding the paradise promised by smugglers.
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