LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human smuggling often conjures up images of shady networks run by organized crime gangs, but new research reveals that independent operators rather than criminal kingpins control routes that bring migrants into Europe from Africa.
More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy, mostly from Libya, since 2014. More than 20,000 are estimated to have died attempting the crossing in the past four years, making it the deadliest border for migrants in the world.
Many entrusted their lives to smugglers who charge exorbitant prices to help them reach Europe.
“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organization running through it,” said Paolo Campana of Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology, author of a study on the smuggling published on Monday.
“This is a far cry from how Mafia-like organizations operate, and a major departure from media reports claiming that shadowy kingpins monopolize certain routes.”
The study examined the findings of an 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors into the 2013 migrant shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, in which more than 360 migrants died, most of them from Eritrea and Somalia.
While conducting his research, Campana also analyzed wiretapped telephone conversations, testimonies, interviews with police task force members, and smugglers’ backgrounds.
Libya, where rival governments and armed factions are vying for power, is the most common departure point for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa by sea.
Campana said the people smuggling was not an organized operation with “independent and autonomous” smugglers at each stage. Successful smugglers need to build a good reputation among migrants in order to attract customers, he said.
“Reputation is crucial in a competitive market, and the wiretaps show how much value smugglers place on their reputation,” Campana said in a statement.
The smuggling and trafficking of people are often conflated, but a key difference is that traffickers transport people for the purposes of exploitation, such as forced labor and forced marriage.
Campana said prosecutors had found no evidence of any involvement from the infamous Sicilian mafia in the Lampedusa disaster, despite Sicily being a key stage in the smuggling route. Instead, 292 people from several countries were found to be tied to the Lampedusa smuggling ring.
The network extended to Dubai, Israel, Canada, Turkey, Germany and the UK, and included those who kidnap for ransom in the deserts of Libya to Tripoli militiamen who take bribes to let migrants out of detention centers.
Europol, Europe’s police agency, said people-smuggling generated up to $6 billion in 2015, but profits dropped by about a third in 2016 after an EU deal with Turkey, a key jumping off point for those trying to reach Europe - cut the migration flow.