In the midst of the refugee crisis, the European Union has for the first time ever been considering deploying naval assets against organized crime. People smuggling, chiefly from Syria and the Horn of Africa, is now a multibillion-dollar business that is as profitable, if not more so, than the trade in illegal narcotics.
This is not the trafficking of migrant labor or women for sexual purposes. These criminal gangs are effectively offering travel-agent services to desperate people fleeing conflict. Their services can include false documentation, bribes to border guards and transport, in dangerous, often deadly, circumstances.
Sadly, the measures countries are taking to counteract the flood of refugees serve only to make organized crime stronger. As long as European countries fail to implement a plan to take in refugees across member states, the business of people smuggling will continue to grow.
It has been almost a decade since I first argued that organized crime should be seen as a priority for resources above the more emotive issue of combating terrorism. The crisis in Europe demonstrates just how devastating the impact of organized crime can be, through both the exploitation of defenseless refugees and the undermining of legitimate governments at a time when countries on Europe’s periphery are facing daunting economic challenges.
Every day smugglers are extracting huge sums for risky journeys. A recent BBC investigation exposed a group in Turkey charging $1,200 for a place in a rubber dinghy filled with 40 or more people crossing the Aegean from Bodrum to the island of Kos in Greece. Let’s do the math: One entirely dispensable rubber dinghy traveling the 15 miles to Greece nets the gang $48,000. If the boat goes down, they don’t care — they’ve already been paid.
Richer refugees can afford a bespoke package that offers transit all the way from Turkey or Lebanon to a named European Union country. But most have to part with large amounts of cash every stage of the way. Merchants take advantage of the migrants’ desperate situation by charging exorbitant prices for essentials. One researcher from Amnesty International spotted a bottle of water being sold in Presevo, southern Serbia, for $10.
The crisis has breathed new life into well-established criminal groups. Their geographical bases remain the same as they were in the 1990s: Albanians in Kosovo, northern Macedonia and southern Serbia; Greeks in Thessaloniki; Serbs in Belgrade; Bulgarians along their borders with Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey. All maintain close links with Turkish syndicates where refugees often start their journey to the European Union.
The Balkan Peninsula is a mountainous region on the key route between Europe and the Middle East that for centuries was on the fault line where the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires met. Local groups there are used to smuggling whatever is in demand — weapons, drugs, women or refugees — and they can adapt with alacrity.
At the moment, the trade has shifted to refugees. This is a labor-intensive operation, and so the syndicates have been furiously recruiting. Europol, the law enforcement body based in The Hague that facilitates cooperation among Europe’s police forces, has registered an astonishing 29,000 individuals in this year alone whom it suspects of involvement in people smuggling inside Europe. There are many more thousands based in Syria itself, Lebanon and across North Africa.
In the past 15 years, Balkan governments have expended huge efforts to reduce the levels of crime and corruption.
Much of this good work now threatens to be undone as the syndicates exploit the chaos on Europe’s periphery to refill their coffers, expand their recruitment and further exert their corrupting influence on governments. In times of instability, criminal structures grow deep roots quickly, which are very tough to remove, especially in struggling economies.
Organized criminal syndicates have changed rapidly since the fall of Communism. They were among the first institutions to exploit globalization to the full. With the expansion of new markets around the world and the emergence of a vast lawless zone for the best part of a decade from Yugoslavia in the west to Russia’s border with China in the east, the 1990s saw a remarkable upturn in the provision of illicit goods and services around the world.
Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, told me that this has affected “a move away from the traditional family structures of organized crime towards one that is much more multinational.” Add to this the exceptional value of mobile technology and social media networks to criminals, and this renders policing the refugees all but impossible.
This refugee crisis will not go away until a solution to the war in Syria is found, and there is no prospect of that in the near future. So it is imperative in the short term that barriers are brought down. In the last week, borders have been closed, walls built and armed forces deployed. In response, the smuggling groups in the Balkans are simply raising their prices to guide people across the ever more treacherous borders. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation for all those refugees, whether in Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia or Hungary, reaches crisis levels.
The European Union must agree on and implement a policy for taking refugees across its member states as soon as possible. There are 500 million people in the European Union, and it is perfectly capable of absorbing a further two million, especially since the aging population is already placing immense strains on the Continent’s long-term economic prospects. Many of the refugees from Syria are highly educated and a significant potential asset to the union. Allowing them to stagnate in makeshift camps where despair and criminality are spreading will benefit nobody in the host countries except for those running the underground economy on which the refugees increasingly depend.
The Balkans have come a long way since the wars of the 1990s, but there are still major unresolved political and economic challenges, especially in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and Macedonia. The longer Europe dithers over its refugee policy, the greater the strain on these countries, not the least being the growing influence of corrupt and criminal structures.
Misha Glenny is the author of “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.”