Smuggling of refugees: Making profits on other people’s misfortune

Several thousand refugees in Serbia, after the closure of the West Balkan route they were passing through, is waiting for Europe to open the borders, or to try and reach the desired country with smugglers, risking their own lives. Refugees, whose number in Europe has not been this high since the Second World War, are finding ways to avoid border crossings because they cannot pass them legally. Smugglers are earning money on other people’s misfortune, and organized crime has been flourishing.

Interpol and Europol have reported that organized criminal groups are earning up to several billion euros per year from human smuggling. Europe is mostly silent after long discussions on refugee quotas that EU countries should accept, and which remain a dead letter. Asylum is, in addition to laws and international conventions that regulate this matter, being regulated at the level of policy, not rights.

It is impossible to give an accurate assessment of how many people arrives per day, and how many of them leave Serbia, i.e. how many migrants are currently in the territory of the country. Many of them have entered through smuggling channels, so their entry is not recorded anywhere, as their exit may not be either.

Smuggling business is flourishing

In September this year, estimates were that there are up to 6,000 migrants in Serbia, i.e. that their numbers in September and October increased. This can be explained by the fear of the coming winter, and the need to cross the road to the countries where they want to start a new life as quickly as possible, and these are usually countries of Western and Northern Europe.

Minister in the Government of Serbia, Aleksandar Vulin, repeats that the Balkan route is not closed, although such decision was made in March this year, when EU introduced a new regime for entering its territory.

I have informed our European partners about that, I spoke at UNHCR's Executive Committee as well, where I made it clear that the Balkan route is not closed, and that the old rules do not, and cannot, apply any longer. It is a response that the whole world will have to give. These are some occurrences that happen once in a hundred years, when the whole world is changing before our eyes”, said Vulin.

Now migrants are staying longer in the territory of Serbia, because it is difficult for them to continue their journey. Hungary, at the two border crossings Horgos and Kelebija, accepts about thirty people per day, and Croatia asks for visas that migrants do not have, which makes their road to the EU very difficult. That is why many of them turn to smugglers and that business is practically flourishing.

This is also stated in the most recent joint report of Interpol and Europol on migrant smuggling networks from May, 2016. Assessment of their total annual cash turnover is about five to six billion dollars. The main method of payment is cash.

Billions of euros of illegal profits

The report also explains how they came to this sum of money, which looks really unbelievable. A rough estimate of the annual profits of human smuggling is based on the number of migrants who entered the territory of the EU last year. According to the estimates of Europol and Interpol, there were about a million of them. Most of them have sought the services of smugglers, and paid from three to six thousand euros for the whole journey.

Smuggling of migrants is a multinational business with suspects who come from more than one hundred countries, both in the EU and beyond. Human smuggling is a highly profitable business, because it entails low overall cost for the entire smuggling operation, and there is a high demand for their services”, the report noted.

This story was also confirmed by a woman, a refugee from Syria. During an interview with the “Insider without Limits”, a joint project of the production of Insider and Radio Free Europe, she said that she paid 1,300 euros to cross from Greece to Macedonia, and the smugglers asked for additional 500 euros to take her to Serbia.

Smuggling turns into human trafficking

There were people in our group who did not pay because they did not have the money, and did not continue the journey with us”, she pointed out, adding that now they are asking for another 1,700 or 1,800 euros to take her across the border with Hungary.

NGOs point out that human smuggling is closely associated with some other, more serious, criminal offenses such as human trafficking.

”People say, okay, smuggling is voluntary. Yes, we can say that this is a form of an agreement between the person and a smuggler, but if that person has given consent to be smuggled, they did not give consent to be in a refrigerator truck with 70 other persons, or to be forced to any other thing”, said Jelena Hrnjak of NGO Atina.

She also emphasized that penalties for smuggling are a form of incentive, because when it comes to imposing individual penalties, they usually amount to several months only, and do not correspond with the amount of money these persons can earn from migrants.

Therefore, Jelena Hrnjak considers that the criminal offense of human smuggling should certainly be connected with organized crime.

In the report published by Europol and Interpol, it is stated that more than 90 percent of migrants are arriving to the EU with smugglers, i.e. members of organized criminal groups, and that the suspects in human smuggling cases had previously been registered in connection with other serious criminal offenses.

Just over a year ago, 70 migrants suffocated in a refrigerator truck with Hungarian registration plates, on the highway near Vienna. Several arrests were made in Hungary regarding this case. At the end of August last year, 50 migrants suffocated in the cargo hold of a ship near the Libyan coast, probably due to the smoke from the ship’s engines. Image of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi echoed around the world.

These are only individual images of the horrors migrants are experiencing in an attempt to reach freedom and better life through smuggling channels. The winter will be here soon, and thousands of migrants will welcome it, at best, in warm reception centers, on the journey they began without tickets or a timetable.


For NGO Atina, text translated by Marija Pantelic

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