Refugee Crisis The High Price of Hope

For migrants fleeing persecution and poverty, Europe is a place to begin anew. Some can afford to pay smugglers for safe passage and entry papers, but the majority have to take their chances with more unscrupulous gangs – and many pay with their lives. 
Italy is struggling to cope with rescuing thousands of migrants.

“If there is someone in Libya who wants to go to Italy, please contact us,” reads an Arab-language Facebook page. A telephone number with the Libyan country code is placed beneath the image of a full refugee ship. There’s a direct line to a smuggler of illegal immigrants as the comments on the page prove.

“When does the next ship leave for Italy?”

“Tomorrow, God willing.”

“How much is it, for me and my wife?”

“A thousand dollars each.”

There are many sites like these on the Internet, offering passports, birth certificates, driver's licenses and preferred routes.

Prices range from a few hundred U.S. dollars for an overland transport to tens of thousands of dollars for an all-inclusive package. The providers are part of an expanding international travel industry for people with no access to legal paths of immigration.

Their numbers are growing. More than 50 million people around the world are displaced, the highest number since the end of World War II. The United Nations estimates smugglers operating along the most important routes between Africa and Europe, North America and South America take in about $7 billion (€6.36 billion) per year.

One of the key smuggling centers is Libya. After years of civil war, public order has practically collapsed, allowing smugglers to operate undisturbed.

Boats depart for Italy almost every day from the port city of Zuwara in western Libya. The average migrant pays $1,000 (€894) to $4,000 (€3,576) for passage, along with the additional costs of transportation within Europe. For example, a trip by car from Milan to Munich costs about $500.

The illegal-immigrant smuggling business is not controlled by a hierarchical organization that could be crippled with targeted strikes.

Routes on the Libyan coast also are firmly in the control of smugglers. Most refugees from southern Africa reach the Mediterranean after passing through Agadez in Niger or the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The harrowing trip in an overcrowded Toyota SUV – or in a less expensive truck container – costs about $2,000 to $3,000, according to the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime. Passengers regularly die of thirst along the way.

Smugglers have entire packages available for affluent customers. The trip from Nigeria to the European Union complete with forged papers costs about $40,000. This luxury option also exists in Syria, where civil war is increasingly driving out members of the affluent upper class with the financial resources to flee to Europe.

But that level of service is unaffordable for the overwhelming majority of immigrants.

The annual per capita income in a nation like Mali is just $670. Families often pool their money to pay for the trip and, in many cases, migrants must interrupt the journey to earn more money for the next segment of travel. Some migrants travel for years before finally reaching their destination.

The migrants are a lucrative source of income for smuggling barons like Abu Hamada, a 62-year-old engineer from Damascus, who operates from a base in Cairo. He told British newspaper The Guardian he has earned more than $2 million in the past six months.

Mr. Hamada charges $1,900 for the trip to Italy in a vessel accommodating 200 passengers. He spends about $330,000 per trip on supplies, crew and various middlemen. This leaves him a profit of $50,000.

The illegal-immigrant smuggling business is not controlled by a hierarchical organization that could be crippled with targeted strikes. As a rule, the market is divided up by a large number of groups, some big, some small.

Members of desert tribes like the Tuareg and their enemies, the Tubu, for example, control smuggling operations through the Sahara Desert.

Farther north, Libyan clans run the business, including militias involved in the civil war, who use smuggling profits to buy arms. The high profit margins also attract drug smugglers and criminal gangs.

The militias and gangs involved are often uninterested in long-term business relationships. They sail one or two large boats and demand payment in advance.

This fragmentation has far-reaching consequences for a business capitalizing on human desperation.

Normally, smugglers had to think about their reputations and deliver on their promises if they hoped to remain successful in the market.  Those who make it to Europe pass on their contacts and their recommendations to others, which generates new business. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, smugglers will find themselves losing customers.

In the past, the payment system served as a form of quality assurance. Smugglers were paid a portion of the agreed price up front, while relatives paid the rest upon the migrant's safe arrival.

As a result, the market has regulated itself to a certain extent. The worst offenders could no longer fill their boats. Most smugglers tried to get customers to their destinations as safely as possibly including people who, without the aid of the smugglers, would have no other means of escaping violence and terror in their native countries.

But things have changed, and the militias and gangs involved are often uninterested in long-term business relationships. They sail one or two large boats and demand payment in advance. They have no concern for the fates of their passengers. In some cases, migrants are forced to steer the ships themselves because the vessels lack crews.

“Especially in Libya, we are dealing with players who are only interested in quick money,” said a spokesperson at the International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) in Vienna.

Last week, the European Union announced plans to take on these players, but whether they succeed is uncertain. It wouldn’t be the first attempt to thwart human traffickers in the Mediterranean, but the battle against traffickers and smugglers can only be one element of a “comprehensive strategy” to handle the subject of migration, said ICMPD Director Lukas Gehrke.

So far, however, the demand has always created the supply. There is little sign this is changing.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. Yassin Musharbash also contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected]