Europe's Refugee Crisis Spawns A Billion-Dollar Industry

Refugees and migrants pay smugglers huge sums of money.

10/09/2015 6:51 AM AEST | Updated 10/09/2015 6:51 AM AEST
Credit: Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive on the island of Lesbos, Greece, after crossing from Turkey on Sept. 8, 2015.

Europe's refugee crisis is not only an urgent humanitarian disaster, but has also spawned an incredibly lucrative industry. Refugees and migrants are spending immense sums of money in attempts to reach Europe, siphoning more than billion dollars a year into an underground economy of traffickers. Likewise, EU member states are increasing funds for border control programs and deportations to stop people from entering their nations.  

Between 2000 and June 2015, migrants and refugees have paid traffickers over 16 billion euros to reach Europe, according to The Migrants' Files, a data journalism organization that has analyzed thousands of payments to smugglers to estimate the size of the trafficking market.

While that figure may seem astronomical, The Migrants' Files says it's a conservative number that doesn't include recent months of record migration.

Credit: Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

A woman holds a child shortly after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 9, 2015. 

More than 381,000 people have attempted to enter Europe by sea so far in 2015, dwarfing the number of journeys made in previous years. There were nearly 130,000 sea arrivals in the Mediterranean this August alone, up from around 33,000 arrivals during the same month in 2014. Given the exponential increase, the money traffickers receive likely far exceeds The Migrants' Files' estimate. 

Syrians make up the largest group of migrants and refugees -- accounting for just over half of the people making the trip -- while Afghans and Eritreans are the next most-represented nationalities.  

Traffickers have charged many people thousands of euros for the trip to Europe. Smuggling routes vary depending on the region, and can consist of thousands of miles of travel to get to the Mediterranean. African migrants and refugees often pass through trafficking hubs in cities like Agadez in Niger or Sabha in Libya. Once they arrive, smugglers take them in truck convoys to the Libyan coast.

One of the more popular routes this year runs through the Balkans. Many people travel from Turkey toward Greece and beyond, passing through Hungary to more hospitable countries like Germany and Austria. 

It can cost around 2,500 euros per person to travel from Syria to Germany, according to Der Spiegel, but prices vary according to a person's country of origin. A Libyan smuggler told the Guardian in April that people from sub-Saharan African usually paid less than 1,000 euros, while Moroccans paid no more than 1,500 euros.  

Smugglers often operate within a network, rather than as lone actors. Trafficking organizations have hierarchies for everyone from recruiters and drivers to financiers and organizers, who all carry out specific functions within the group. They're paid through an informal money exchange system that uses banking offices and ticketed receipts, according to Der Spiegel.

Meanwhile, migrants' experiences on their journeys to Europe can be vastly different from what traffickers have promised them. Traffickers often replace proper transport with overloaded, rickety boats that frequently capsize or leave people stranded, or with cramped trucks in which they can suffocate to death. Some travelers face violent armed robberies while at sea.

While there is still no comprehensive policy for addressing smuggling networks and the refugee crisis, European leaders have noticed the growing human trafficking industry.

This year, the EU has ramped up anti-trafficking measures, which included launching a new naval operation this summer in the Mediterranean. But while the deepening crisis has highlighted the importance of Europe's response to smuggling, European nations have already spent billions over the past decade and a half to secure their borders in a policy informally known as "fortress Europe."

The Migrants' Files report finds that the EU and European states allocated more than a billion euros for walls, guard equipment and coordinated border security efforts between 2000 and 2014. This doesn't include more recent projects, like Hungary's 109-mile border fence.

During this period, the EU also publicly funded 39 research and development projects to enhance border security, at a cost of 230 million euros. 

Finmeccanica, a company that handled 16 of these projects, came under fire in 2012 for delivering a shipment of radio equipment to the Bashar Assad government in Syria while the country's revolution was underway.

European countries spent an additional 11.3 billion since 2000 on deportations alone, although The Migrants' Files notes that this is an estimate, because only Belgium keeps a full record of its spending on deportations.

Credit: Ronald Zak/Associated Press

Police on the highway south of Vienna, Austria, near the truck where at least 20 migrants were found dead on Aug. 27, 2015.

Europe is spending money to combat a trafficking industry it actually helped create, rights groups and migration experts say. They argue that European countries' restrictive border policies have forced refugees and migrants to turn to dangerous trafficking routes.

"Such policies only serve to open a new and lucrative market for smuggling rings, a market which could not exist without this prohibition,” François Crépeau,a U.N. expert on migration, stated in June.

While countries such as Germany and Austria expect to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees this year, other countries and EU officials have balked at the suggestion that they have a humanitarian responsibility to accept asylum claims.

EU ministers are set to meet on Sept. 14 to discuss how to address the crisis, with nations calling for a unified asylum policy.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, called on Wednesday for sweeping reforms that could open up legal channels for migration and overhaul border control policy.

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