Open Essay

Human Smugglers and Saviours

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How a network of criminals controls global migration

IT IS 8 AM and Ibrahim is chain-smoking in a clandestine flophouse with his new business partners of convenience, Adam, Ahmed, Barka and Sidi. All but Adam are in their mid-twenties. They sit on a cheap plastic mat that does little to soften the cracked concrete below it. As soon as one of them finishes a cigarette, another tosses the communal pack of American Legend in his direction. When one carton is kicked, a new one is taken from the stack in the corner and ripped open without hesitation. Breakfast on this morning appears to be sugar biscuits, nicotine and caffeine. The near-constant fidgeting suggests that some members of the crew might have something stronger coursing through their bloodstreams.

Ibrahim is not the leader of this impromptu team of entrepreneurs, he is just the most talkative, and the one who seems most interested in having people understand the extent to which his story is a modern parable of our times. He grew up in southern Libya, where he attended university in Kufra. After earning his degree in agricultural engineering, he landed a job at a large-scale farm. He liked his life there, living comfortably off his salary and even saving enough to start a side business, a shop that sold canned goods, bottled drinks and groceries. But on this stifling Thursday morning in April 2014, Ibrahim is in the darkest corner of a filthy room in a grubby ghetto of Agadez in Niger, 1,600 kilometres across the Sahara from Kufra, and a world away from the comforts of his previous life in Libya.

Ibrahim and his cohort are smugglers who specialise in the transport of a very specific commodity: humans. They move migrants who have come to Agadez from all over West Africa into southern Libya. From there these migrants, who are fleeing everything from war to political persecution to grinding poverty, will pay for the chance to be crammed onto an unseaworthy vessel that, purportedly, is destined for Europe. Some of them won’t even make it to the coast. They might fall from the back of an overfilled truck and be left for dead in the Sahara, or they might be kidnapped and held for ransom by criminal gangs and Islamist militants. Others might be forced into unpaid labour, which for the women making the journey often means sexual exploitation.

Across the Sahara, 1,850 kilometres north of where Ibrahim operates, Mansour watches a boat full of migrants launch out to sea from the confines of a half-built beachfront villa several kilometres outside the Libyan capital,Tripoli. Some of the people on board—Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, Malians and other nationals from West Africa— may have reached Libya courtesy of the services provided by Ibrahim and his colleagues. But the vast majority of those on Mansour’s ship are from Eritrea and Somalia, which means that their trips to Libya were most probably facilitated by similar networks operating out of the Horn of Africa, which for decades have specialised in moving and extorting migrants throughout the region.

In 2013, when Mansour first got into the business of smuggling people, he was loading boats with Syrians who paid a premium for his services. Occasionally he would fill the remaining space on a ship with sub-Saharan Africans, padding his profit margin by packing those who paid less into the hold. Now, in 2015, with Syrians preferring alternate routes to Europe, Mansour’s business is predicated on volume, and he loads any vessel he can get his hands on with as many Africans as he can find.

Some smugglers are revered by the people they transport, hailed as saviours due to their willingness to deliver men, women and children to safety and opportunity

In Athens, 1,100 kilometres north-east of where Mansour watches his boat full of migrants disappear over the pre-dawn horizon, Tony waits for a bus. Only days before, Tony was in Latakia in Syria, with his wife and daughter. He paid a Syrian smuggler $500 to facilitate his passage through ISIS-controlled northern Syria and into Turkey. Once there, he meandered his way across Turkey to the coastal city of Izmir, where he paid $800 to a Syrian man who works for a Turkish smuggler to board an overcrowded dinghy. Under the cover of darkness, Tony and his fellow travellers managed to navigate the Aegean Sea courtesy of an unreliably cheap Chinese motor affixed to the back of their rubber contraption. They steered their boat towards a light in the distance, and, just before sunrise, they washed ashore on the Greek island of Kos.

Tony now waits in Athens alongside a hairless pre-teen from Syria who suffers from cancer. They both have dreams of reaching Sweden; but before they do they will board an unmarked bus leaving from a nondescript intersection in the heart of the city. If anyone asks the sketchy owner of the quasi-legitimate bus company, they are headed to the northern city of Thessaloniki. But everyone knows this bus is full exclusively of Syrians and is going directly to the village of Idomeni, on the Macedonian border. From there, Tony will try to join the unimpeded flow of migrants heading for Germany, but if Hungary decides to make good on its threats to build a wall and block anyone, including Syrians, from entering, Tony will seek out the services of another smuggler and enter into a succession of shadowy arrangements with men he has never met but has no choice to trust. ‘Anywhere but Syria,’ Tony says, in the broken English he learned from watching movies.

While Tony waits for his bus, Ahmed, his wife and his two children are travelling in style. The owner of a chain of bookshops, Ahmed stubbornly maintained his life in Damascus even as the ongoing civil war was consuming every aspect of it. In the second year of the conflict Ahmed lost his summer home. First, it was commandeered by the army; then it was overrun by insurgent groups, who ransacked the place and sold off family heirlooms that stretched back generations. In the third year he sent his daughter to Beirut so she could continue her studies. Ahmed has barely seen her since Lebanon closed its borders with Syria. The next year, Roula, Ahmed’s wife, stopped leaving the house, paralysed by the fear of constant gunfire and explosions, and suffering from heart palpitations as she nervously waited for her two adolescent sons to arrive home from school each day.

Ahmed had clung to the business that his grandfather built. He had long hoped to pass it on to his children one day. But, as the war dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that things would ever return to normal, and so Ahmed did what he had promised himself he would never do. He unfolded a creased piece of paper he had kept in his wallet for several years, and called the number scribbled on it. A few hours later, the deal was done: $36,000—$10,000 each for him and Roula, $8,000 for each of the boys. His daughter would stay in Beirut and finish her studies, and perhaps join them later. The fake European passports and air tickets were ready in two weeks. They hope that Sweden, their final destination, will offer them peace, stability, the right to work, study, rebuild their lives as permanent residents.

For all too many refugees, smugglers prove unable to deliver, exposing their clients to serious injury or even death. Even worse, some smugglers turn out to be traffickers

Ahmed drives to Beirut and boards a plane with his family. Casting his eyes to the midnight sky, despite all he has lost, he offers thanks to the smugglers that made it all possible, the criminal heroes who allow him to start his life anew in Europe.

IBRAHIM, MANSOUR, Tony and Ahmed are all active participants in the biggest mass migration Europe has seen since the Second World War in what has come to be known as the ‘migrant crisis’.

There is a natural impulse—among scholars, journalists, politicians, activists and concerned citizens—to frame their stories within a broader human rights narrative. They remind us of the unfairness of the world and the injustice of global inequality. They remind us that people who live happy, fulfilling lives can suddenly find themselves facing a future more bleak, cruel and violent than they could have ever imagined. They remind us of the desperation with which people will risk what little they have for the chance of having something only marginally better...

The networks [of criminals], tens of thousands of people strong, are facilitating an unprecedented surge of migration from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia into Europe. Although the drivers of the current ‘crisis’ are many— including but not limited to the concentric phenomena of conflict, climate change, global inequality, political persecution and globalisation—the actualisation of the crisis is enabled and actively encouraged by an increasingly professional set of criminal groups and opportunistic individuals that is generating profits in the billions.

Some smugglers are revered by the people they transport, hailed as saviours due to their willingness to deliver men, women and children to safety and opportunity when no legal alternatives will offer them either. In a neoliberal world where the fates of individuals are couched in anodyne policy-speak, it is often the criminals who help the most desperate among us escape the inadequacy, hypocrisy and immorality that run through our current international system. It is certainly true that smugglers profit from the desperation of others, but it is also true that in many cases smugglers save lives, create possibilities and redress global inequalities.

Other smugglers carry out their activities without any regard for human rights, treating the lives of those they smuggle as disposable commodities in a broader quest to maximise profits. For all too many migrants and refugees, smugglers prove unable to deliver, exposing their clients to serious injury or even death. Even worse, some smugglers turn out to be traffickers, who, after luring unsuspecting clients with false promises of a better life, subject them to exploitation and abuse.

Meanwhile, efforts by European policymakers and their allies to stem the flow of migrants into Europe are pushing smuggling networks deeper underground and putting migrants more at risk, while at the same time doing little to address the root causes of mass migration. In lieu of safe, legal paths to seeking refuge and opportunity, new barriers are forcing migrants to pursue more dangerous journeys and seek the services of more established mafias and criminal organisations. These groups have developed expertise in trafficking drugs, weapons, stolen goods and people, and were uniquely qualified to add migrant smuggling to their business portfolios.

The result has been a manifold increase in human insecurity, not only in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea crossings, which have received considerable attention in the international media, but also along the overland smuggling routes that cross the Sahara and the Central Asian Silk Road, penetrate deep into the Balkans, and continue into the grimiest corners of Europe’s trendiest capitals.

What was once a loose network of freelancers and ad hoc facilitators has blossomed into professional, transnational organised criminal networks devoted to migrant smuggling. The size and scope of their operations is unprecedented. Shadowy new figures have emerged, existing crime syndicates have moved in, and a range of enterprising opportunists have come forward, together forming a dynamic, multi-level criminal industry that has shown an extraordinary ability to innovate and adapt.

Analysts have sought to explain the migrant crisis in Europe through traditional frameworks of push and pull factors, war, conflict and underdevelopment, but these explanations are no longer sufficient. What we are witnessing is not just the story of traditional migrant smuggling on a larger scale. Rather, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in which the unprecedented profits associated with migrant smuggling are altering long-standing political arrangements, transforming economies and challenging security structures in ways that could potentially have a profound impact on global order.

Furthermore, the consolidation and codification of these networks also means that smuggling networks now seek to create contexts in which demand for their services will thrive. They have become a vector for global migration, quick to identify loopholes, exploit new areas of insecurity and target vulnerable populations whom they see as prospective clients. They no longer simply respond to demand for smuggler services: they actively generate it.

(Extracted from Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour | by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano | Hurst | $20 | 320 pages)