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The Sophisticated Smuggling Routes Bringing Refugees into Europe

Attempts to crack down on migration have created the perfect breeding ground for new smuggling ecosystems.

by Stav Dimitropoulos
24 March 2017, 3:12pm

In 2015, more than a million refugees crossed into Europe, in what marked the peak year of the refugee crisis. The Syrian civil war, the volatile situation in Afghanistan, and the promise of protection and benefits in countries like Germany morphed the refugee crisis into a windfall for profiteers. Those desperate to leave their homes turned to smugglers, often advertised on social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp as catering to the needs of dislocated people in war-torn areas of the East.

Out of the seven migratory routes into Europe by sea and land—the Central Mediterranean, Western Mediterranean, Western African, Apulia and Calabria, Eastern Borders, Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Balkan routes—the last two experienced something of a smuggling spree over the past few years.

Confronted with the explosion of arrivals through the Eastern Med and Western Balkan routes, the EU signed a deal with Turkey last March. The deal allowed Greece to return to Turkey "all new irregular migrants" arriving after March 20. In return, Turkey would get €6 billion ($6.4 billion) until the end of 2018, early visa-free travel, and advancement in its EU membership negotiations. Under the weight of the new deal, arrivals in Europe plummeted—from 885,400 arrivals through the Eastern Med route in 2015 to 182,534 in 2016.

Yet, even if smugglers capitalizing off human desperation took a decisive blow in late March 2016, the dust of the refugee crisis has hardly settled. The UN Agency for Refugees estimates that there were 1,464 new arrivals in Greece last month alone.

"It is not possible to make any predictions about the future of smuggling, as there are many variables attached to it," Izabella Cooper, spokesperson for FRONTEX, told me, citing "a mix of push-and-pull factors, the political and economic situation in the source countries, [and] the offer of smuggling services. Border control itself is not a panacea but rather one piece of a bigger puzzle."

By all intents and purposes, the puzzle of the criminal syndicates of smuggling appears loosely connected, yet grossing between $3 and $6 billion yearly and spanning nationalities from more than 100 countries, according to Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency. It might take more than the EU-Turkey deal to force it to buckle under. In the meantime, loosely dispersed Greek hotspots of stranded people have created the perfect breeding ground for new smuggling ecosystems.

"All you need is money. Then, you find a fixer. He'll tell you the most economical travel package for your case," said Masood Qahar, a 39-year old Afghan escapee of the Taliban and resident of a Southern Athens detention camp. "[It's] a piece of cake. Fixers are everywhere."

A smuggler, or "tour guide," with a group of migrants. Photo courtesy of the author

The EU-Turkey deal has seemingly created a paradox: Some people trapped in Greece's detention camps have started working at the bottom of the barrel of the smuggling networks, as low-level fixers. Some are also forming small consortiums to develop their own smuggling routes through parts of the Balkans. The deal has also benefited modes of transport not limited to land and water.

"If you have €4,000 ($4,300), you can easily travel by plane," Qahar told me. "The fixer will send you to Victoria Square [in the heart of Athens]. You'll find an organizer there. The organizer will invite you to see the real smuggler, who usually owns a nightclub or a mobile-phone shop or a mini-market in the vicinity."

Qahar told me about one such virtual smuggling business disguised as a mini market in Arabic letters, in the same ghettoized region of Athens. The "real smuggler," the leader in smuggling ring, will match your passport size photo to a doppelgänger—often a drug addict or otherwise destitute person who rents their passport-size photo to smugglers for a short period of time. The enterprise is so neatly set up that they can even arrange for you to have a smuggler of the opposite sex escort you to the airport and pretend to be your spouse on the flight to your destination country to dispel suspicions, according to Qahar.

The increase in smuggling by air may as well stem from the loopholes of the EU-Turkey deal. By May 2016, two months after the agreement was put in force, the Greek authorities had declined 30 percent of the asylum claims they had processed. Furthermore, the deal extended only to the Aegean Sea crossing, not to other routes out of Turkey. Thus, smuggling networks switched their sights on the costlier full-package solution: travel by air with European passports, like the ones Qahar describes, or Syrian passports. This would bypass the obstacle of the closed borders.

Amin, a 34-year-old Afghan man now living in a camp in Serbia, told me he paid a smuggler $215 for a "guided trip" to Eidomeni in northern Greece. From Eidomeni, he paid a taxi driver $160 to reach the Greece-FYROM borders and then a third smuggler helped him cross the borders on foot, for a fee of $2,150. "It's a jungle of police and smugglers out there, but the latter can deliver," he said. Europol itself acknowledges that bottlenecks and informal camps have emerged to assist the crossing of the shutdown borders.

A last, more adrenaline-inducing way smugglers have come up with to transfer human beings across Europe after the prohibitive deal involves trucks. According to Arash, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee, refugees are advised to wait at Patras port in western Peloponnese, where many Italy-bound ferries set off. For $540, a smuggler will give them the greenlight to hide under the wheels of a truck, if the driver is not in the know. If he is, the tariff can soar to $4,300, but the traveler can enjoy more convenient body positions.

From Patras to Bari, Arash told me he spent 16 hours of his life in the fetal position, consuming only a bottle of water and a couple of date fruits. From Bari he moved to Milan, then to Genoa, then to Ventimiglia. For $500, a second smuggler shoved him into a car alongside three more men. They crossed the Italian-French borders and arrived in Nice.

"Every day he brings more than 20 people like this," he told me. "Lots of money, lots of money."

But for Arash, it was all worth it: He's now living in a Parisienne refugee camp, waiting for his first asylum interview.

"If Arash had had more money and patience, he would have been spared the first part of his journey, the trickier one," Qahar says from the detention camps.

As of March 2017, fixers have been approaching Qahar, telling him that for $4,300 they can send him to Italy by ship without hide-and-seek games with the truck drivers. "Smugglers have made alliances with shipowners, who first supply refugees and migrants with work uniforms, and then 'recruit' them for various positions on the ship, for as long as the voyage lasts," he disclosed. This is the new subterfuge of the smuggling networks, whose plasticity has far outshone brittle intercontinental deals.

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