‘I’m doing something good’: From construction worker to people smuggler


Omar* is a husband and father of four. He used to work in construction, but these days he’s a people smuggler.

Under the cover of darkness, he and his small band of fellow smugglers guide their Syrian customers along paths through the mountains where they sit and wait for precisely the right moment to slip, undetected, into Turkey.

“Theoretically, it’s wrong to have a job like this, and illegal. But from a practical viewpoint I’m doing something good,” says Omar, 31.  “I’m helping people who have been suffering for six years to get out of Syria and live in peace until this war is over.”

People smuggling, like any industry, is all about supply and demand, and experts say demand has never been higher in a world plagued by more frequent and longer-lasting conflicts, oppression in all its forms, and vast economic disparity.

It is a high-profit, low-risk business, and security specialists say the vast sums of money to be made are driving its evolution into an increasingly professional industry.

For his part, Omar says he and his colleagues are ethical, even altruistic, service providers.

“If they are caught, I will give the money back,” he tells German news agency DPA. “We are good people in comparison with other groups. We do not take a lot of cash. If I have clients like parents and four children, I just take money for the parents.”

Clients pay $65

“These days, I just take $US50 ($65) for each client. Some groups take $US500 or $US800  but my group does not. We are not blackmailers.”

People smuggling is also becoming more and more brutal, according to migration experts and the European Union’s Frontex agency, which coordinates border management for the bloc. They say smugglers are prepared to accept that the “goods” they are transporting – men, women and children – may die of thirst, or drown, and that women and young girls will be raped.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has calculated that at least 60,000 migrants have died or disappeared while fleeing their countries since the year 2000.

Deaths continue to rise in many regions, with the UN-related body saying 20,000 have perished since January 2014, but it points out that improved data collection may account for some of that rise. Not all deaths that occur during migration journeys can be linked to people-smuggling activities, but a vast number are.

So far this year, the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented more than 2100 deaths worldwide during people’s migration journeys.

The world’s deadliest route is the Mediterranean, which links the African continent with Europe. And it appears to have become even more deadly despite migrant numbers dropping off. So far this year there have been more than 1500 deaths recorded on the crossing, roughly matching the figure for the same period last year. But the number of people who’ve made the crossing so far this year is far fewer: about 70,000 versus 190,000.

Experts say many migrants understand the risks they take when they turn to smugglers who trade on human misery. They have heard the stories of migrants who are deceived, of those who are diverted into the sex industry or other forms of forced labour.

But desperation drives them on regardless.

‘Either I make it to Europe or I die at sea’

Shelok, from Nigeria, at a camp in Tripoli, Libya, fears her money and suffering have been for nothing. Photo: DPA

In a warehouse housing migrants on the outskirts of Tripoli, four words have been scrawled in charcoal on the wall next to a toilet: “Nothing good comes easy.”

Given the location, it is unclear if the author had a message of perseverance or bitter sarcasm in mind.

Of the thousands of migrants who tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, some have landed here after being caught by the Libyan coastguard.

Inside the warehouse, hundreds of mattresses lie next to each other on the floor, and smells of sweat, wet laundry and faeces hang heavy in the air.

The walls are freshly painted in pink, with images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse smiling down on clothes draped over a child’s swing. Outside, young men play football barefoot or in socks, while the women sit in a courtyard covered in wire mesh.

Operated by Libya’s Government of National Accord, the camp functions largely as a showcase for journalists and international aid organisations. Conditions in most refugee camps are immeasurably worse, according to the migrants.

“In my last camp, there was a sick woman sleeping next to me,” says Shelok, a 30-year-old Nigerian woman.  “The guards refused to call a doctor because it was during the night and at some point, she stopped whimpering. She was dead.”

Shelok left her two children with her mother to seek her fortune in Europe. She asked an old woman in her home village for help to leave, but soon found herself being forced to work as a prostitute in a Nigerian town to pay off the costs of her departure.

After some time she managed to escape the group that was holding her but soon turned to another group of smugglers to leave her homeland. They took her across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast on a journey that lasted more than a month. But when Shelok finally got on a boat, it was intercepted by the coastguard soon after it set off.

Now she languishes in the camp, fearful that her money and suffering have been for nothing.

The IOM estimates that up to a million refugees are currently trapped in Libya. The politically fragmented North African country has become the most important transit route for Europe-bound African migrants, who often fall prey to human traffickers.

The organisation has also uncovered what is effectively a fully functioning slave market operating in Libya. Women are forced into prostitution and men into forced labour, and they are released only after a ransom is paid. 

But even after being stopped by the coastguard, many don’t want to return to their homelands. “I can’t go back to Nigeria,” Shelok says. The hardships are too great and returning to her children as a failed woman in her home village is not an option.

“Either I make it to Europe or I die at sea,” she says.

A multibillion-dollar industry

Migrants and refugees stand on the deck of the vessel Golfo Azzurro after being rescued by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms workers on the Mediterranean Sea on June 16, 2017. Photo: AP

People-smuggling networks turn over about $US10 billion worldwide each year, estimates Frank Laczko, the director of the IOM Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin. “It could be even more. We don’t have secure data,” he says.

The more than 1 million migrants who entered Europe at the height of its refugee crisis in 2015 are thought to have each paid from $US3200 to $US6500, suggesting a total figure of up to $US6 billion, according to estimates from the European Union’s policing agency Europol.

In Asia, the trade is estimated to be worth $US2 billion, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

German security sources believe the profit margin for smugglers is high at 70 to 80 per cent, and possibly more. Payments are made largely in cash, or via the informal “hawala” transfer system that operates through agents on the basis of trust.

Europol and other police agencies say money laundering and couriers making large cross-border cash deliveries are part of the system. The cash is then moved into businesses in the legitimate economy, making money trails difficult if not impossible to follow.

Investigators must also contend with migrants who refuse to divulge what they know about their smugglers. In some cases, that’s because migrants hope to use their smugglers again, to bring relatives over.

People smuggler Omar says there is an unwritten code for his clients: total silence during foot crossings, no mobile phones or lights and, crucially, a vow to protect their smugglers.

“If the clients are caught, they must not tell the Turkish border guards about the guides … the Turkish authorities, they are ready to kill us. If they catch one of us, we are lucky if they leave him with broken bones. They could imprison us as well.”

‘The situation is deteriorating’

Migrants are detained in Tripoli, Libya. Photo: AP

The smuggling industry is still dominated by loosely organised networks of people, each with a specific job to do, for example recruiters, drivers, boat crews, accommodation providers, document counterfeiters.

But there is also evidence that the smuggling industry is becoming increasingly professional, albeit with the help of individual operators in border towns and collection points who offer local knowledge.

In a joint report last year, Interpol and Europol investigators warned about the creation of people smuggling “oligopolies”, with larger networks taking over smaller opportunistic ones.

These trends may also be emerging in Turkey, Egypt and Libya, and there is some evidence to suggest organised crime groups who have historically smuggled drugs and weapons are attracted to the vast profits on offer from shipping human beings.

Experts also agree that corruption is fuelling the people smuggling. In many regions, such as central America and Africa, corrupt officials are essential cogs in the trade. Border guards are paid to look the other way. Embassy officials provide fake passports.

Authorities tasked with trying to disrupt the smuggling trade complain they are hampered by a lack of intelligence and data, a lack of international cooperation, and an absence of concern in the countries migrants are leaving – the very places where the smugglers are most entrenched.

At the edge of Tripoli’s harbour, Ashraf al-Badri of the Libyan coastguard notes that tracking down the smugglers’ boats is difficult.

“The smugglers are very cunning,” the colonel says. “They use rubber dinghies that are not picked up on the radar.”

At night, coastguard officials are forced to rely on their sense of hearing to track the boats, as they lack night-vision equipment, Al-Badri says.

Alongside an old, rusting naval vessel capsized in Tripoli’s harbour are the coastguard’s faster 12-metre boats, which are scarcely bigger than the smugglers’ boats.

Al-Badri feels that he and his men have been let down, not only by the Libyan government but also by the European Union, both of which he says have failed to deliver on promises of help.

“The situation is deteriorating,” Al-Badri says, adding that the traffickers are much better equipped than his force.  “The government has no control, and there are more and more armed militiamen who are co-operating with the smugglers in places.”

The Australian solution

Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz says the only way to diminish the trade is to starve smugglers of customers and suggests Europe follow Australia’s lead.

The federal government has declared that anyone who tries to reach the country by boat will never be resettled here, and Operation Sovereign Borders turns back smuggling boats at sea.

“We have destroyed the people smugglers’ product,” federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says.

Kurz sees some potential solutions in what Australia has done. “The only solution to starve the traffickers of business and to end the dying in the Mediterranean is to make sure that anyone who makes his way illegally does not arrive in central Europe,” he says.

But Demetrios Papademetriou, from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, says hardline border protection regimes – like Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders – only drive demand for smuggling services.

“Strengthened border controls mean that more and more people are relying on facilitators,”  he says.

Dutton sees the military-led operation to stop smugglers’ boats as a permanent fixture on Australia’s security landscape. “Since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced, we have not had a drowning at sea in three years,” he says. “It must be an enduring part of the response to people moving.”

Europol’s Robert Crepinko says the smuggling industry is in a dramatic phase of expansion. “There has never been a bigger market for human trafficking than in the past two years,” says Crepinko, who heads Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC). He says nine out of 10 refugees rely on criminals during their journeys to Europe.

And about 80 per cent of the up to 3 million people living illegally in both Malaysia and Thailand paid smugglers and other criminals.

 ‘Our hopes are no longer with us’

Mohammad Baqir Bayani says the future is completely uncertain for him. Photo: AAP

  When Mohammad Baqir Bayani and his family fled Pakistan in June 2015, he had just buried his father.  A militant group had attacked the family’s spice shop and the businesses of other Hazaras, a widely persecuted minority Shi’ite ethnic group, killing five people including Baqir Bayani’s father, who was shot seven times.

The family, fearing for their lives, returned to their home country of Afghanistan, but threats from the Taliban soon had them on the run again, in a desperate search for safety.

They put their fate in the hands of faceless people smugglers, at a cost of about $US50,000. The people smugglers gave them fake passports and paid off airport officials to get the family into Indonesia by plane, via India and Malaysia.

Baqir Bayani tells of phone contact only with his smugglers and of waiting in transit lounges for airport workers who’d been paid to act as cogs in the trade. “There were employees of the airport … we are just sitting [on] the chairs and they would come to us and take our luggages [sic] and we would follow.”

Smugglers had told the family they could expect to wait a year or so in Indonesia before they’d be resettled in a new homeland.

But almost two years on they remain stuck in Indonesia, which does not resettle refugees, without recourse to any form of financial help from the government and without the right to work. Their money is dwindling and as the family waits, more nations are closing their doors to refugees amid the migrant crisis sweeping the world.

Baqir Bayani fears he and his family may have to resort to moving from the cheap apartments they’ve called home into Indonesia’s overcrowded detention centres to ensure they at least have food.

The family now knows the reality of their wait for a new homeland could be more like four or five years and as each day passes, their fears grow over how they will survive. “The future is completely uncertain for us. We had hope in the early days. But as we pass the time, our hopes are no longer with us.”

To address human smuggling, UN organisations including Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration recommend more “safe and legal routes” for refugees and migrants. 

“The only way to disrupt the business model of smuggling networks is by expanding access to sufficient affordable, safe and regular migration channels,” says Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the OHCHR.

The often negative manner in which the public looks at migration also has to be changed. “We have to learn to embrace diversity because our societies are going to be more ethnic and culturally diverse,” says the IOM’s director-general William Lacy Swing.  

There should also be opportunities for a better future and dignity for refugees so they don’t face the stalemate of years in camps or being marginalised in neighbouring countries.

“If we expect people to stay in communities with no future, there will always be a market for people who help them move illegally,” says Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. 

* Omar’s name has been changed to protect his identity.




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