The Price of Hope Traffickers Profit as Asylum Seekers Head for Europe

More than 150,000 refugees have landed this year on the Italian coastline, most of them hoping to continue north. As the EU struggles to find an answer, human traffickers are raking in billions.

By Walter Mayr


Behind the La Grotta bar, Italy comes to an end. But a narrow road continues onward across the border into France, hugging a cliff above the sea. It is a bottleneck for illegal immigrants and traffickers.

Hidden behind agave bushes, three young men from Mali are crouching on the steep slope, staring at the border. Just a few meters away, a group of Syrian refugees are camped out in front of La Grotta, like pilgrims searching for a hostel: men carrying backpacks, women wearing headscarves and a little boy.

Ahmad, as he asked to be called, is the gray-bearded spokesman of the illegal immigrants. Formerly a software developer in Damascus, he left his wife and children behind. Ahmad pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of his jacket pocket, the official certification of his arrival in Italy -- as refugee number 13,962.

But this number is a reflection of statistics kept in merely one place -- the police headquarters in Crotone, located in southern Italy's Calabria region. All in all, more than 150,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Italy's shores nationwide since January and almost half of them -- more than 60,000 men, women and children -- were never registered in the European Union's Eurodac database. They have long since disappeared, heading north toward the rest of Europe.

There was an unwritten rule after the tragic shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013, in which 366 people drowned: Rome sends naval ships and coast guard vessels into the Mediterranean as part of the "Mare Nostrum" rescue operation, but it lets most of the migrants continue northward without further ado, so that they will not apply for political asylum in Italy as the country of their arrival, as required under the Dublin II agreement.

But in late September, Italy changed course. In a confidential communiqué, which SPIEGEL has seen, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano ordered that henceforth migrants "always" be identified and fingerprinted. Alfano noted that various EU countries have, "with increasing insistence," complained that the immigrants are left to continue their "journey to northern European countries" without being challenged by Italian authorities.

Struggling to Find a Strategy

Preferred destinations include Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, countries with social welfare and the possibility of political asylum. Italy, on the other hand, as confirmed once more by a Nov. 4 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, cannot even guarantee suitable accommodations for asylum applicants. More than ever, the Dublin system is degenerating into a farce, with only about 6 percent of all asylum seekers in Germany actually being returned to the country where they first set foot in the EU.

Fortress Europe is currently struggling to come up with a new strategy to cope with the mass influx of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Italy suspended its "Mare Nostrum" operation on Nov. 1, both to reduce costs and to spur a Europe-wide solution. Since then, ships have been patrolling off the Italian coast as part of the EU's "Triton" mission. But the mission is not tasked with rescuing refugees on the high seas.

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In the face of the worst refugee influx in decades, wealthy countries have "miserably failed," concludes Amnesty International, noting that only half of the $3.74 billion (€3 billion) in funds requested by the United Nations has been made available. Instead, the EU has opted to seal itself off. The results of the latest Europe-wide police operation, "Mos Maiorum," will be released on Dec. 11. Its main purpose was to investigate the destinations, origins, background and paths of asylum seekers coming to Europe.

Meanwhile, the dream of a better life in the EU is a source of income for an entire industry of criminals: human traffickers. Very few Syrians, Eritreans or sub-Saharan Africans hazard the journey to Europe on their own, most opting to pay others for help. Extrapolations from current market prices indicate that traffickers have likely earned several hundred million euros in 2014 just from migrants who landed on the coasts of Italy. The higher the hurdles along the path northward, the bigger the traffickers' profits.

But there is also a second group that has become active in response to the stream of immigrants. Called "la rete" -- the network -- it is an informal collection of bloggers and human rights activists. They too accompany migrants on their perilous journey from the coasts of the Middle East or Anatolia, across the Mediterranean to Europe. But they do so using the tools of the 21st century.

'Practical Assistance'

The Network operates a tightly organized early warning and monitoring system via Facebook, email, satellite phone and Skype. Its aim is to ensure that no migrant can quietly disappear from the radar and that no fishing cutter laden with hundreds of migrants can go unnoticed off the Libyan coast. The digital activists operate 24 hours a day and, unlike the criminal traffickers, they work without pay.

There is another key difference as well: Men are in charge of the network of human traffickers, while women have the say in the network of human rights activists.

"Assalamu alaikum," says Fatima, as she maneuvers her Fiat into a parking space in front of the La Grotta bar at the Menton bordering crossing. She had just spotted Ahmad, the software developer from Damascus, and his companions. The night before, the Syrians had made it into France, but they were picked up and deported again. Now they are back on the Italian side, not knowing what to do next. Fatima, 24, a Moroccan-born chef, has been assigned by the Network to cover Italy's northwestern flank. She commutes back and forth between the French Mediterranean city of Menton, where she lives, and the Italian border town of Ventimiglia. Increasing numbers of migrants have been gathering at the Ventimiglia train station, now that the authorities have cracked down on the northern Brenner Pass route through the Alps.

Fatima usually brings along food, and she always has good advice for the migrants. "Practical assistance is part of our religion, part of Islam," she says. By providing assistance, she is encroaching on the territory of the Tunisian traffickers lying in wait at the Ventimiglia train station for helpless migrants with the funds to pay for their services. For Fatima, payback comes in the form of scratched paint on her Fiat.

Facilitating illegal immigration in Italy is punishable by years in prison. But is it a crime to give refugees a ride in your car? Fatima hesitates. It's clear that Ahmad and his group need to leave the border zone before their next attempt to continue northward. But Fatima prefers not to take the risk, so the exhausted Syrians, together with the four-year-old boy, walk off into the night on foot, until a taxi driver is found to take them to Ventimiglia.

There, on the seedy square in front of the train station, with its portable toilets set up for the migrants, Fatima offers her support until late into the night. The next train to Milan, from where Ahmad and his group intend to depart for Germany via France using a different trafficker, leaves Ventimiglia at 4:37 a.m.

It's an opportunity for Ahmad to tell the story of his journey, from the bombed-out streets of Damascus to the French-Italian border.

Frame By Frame

"My first contact," says the Syrian, "was through a middleman in Damascus named Abu Jafir." Jafir had insisted that the total fee for the trip to Italy -- €7,000 ($8,735) per person -- be paid in advance.

Ahmad doesn't comment on the amount, which corresponds to at least two average annual salaries in prewar Syria. He describes his odyssey matter-of-factly, as if he were showing a long film backwards, frame by frame.

"We took a bus from my neighborhood, which is controlled by pro-regime troops, to an area near the airport. From there, we continued toward Aleppo, where we boarded minivans that took us to the Turkish border. There were constantly new traffickers," says Ahmad. He likens the human trafficking business to "an endless chain that no one can figure out."

The refugees crawled through underground tunnels into Turkey. Judging by the license plates they saw, they were now in Kilis Province in southern Anatolia. A bus took them to Istanbul, 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) away.

"We stayed there for two weeks, half of that time in hotels," says Ahmad. "The $500 I had brought along with me was already gone by the time we left for a place near Izmir. First we had to walk for eight hours. We arrived at a concealed harbor at about 9 p.m. Our boat was more than 20 meters (66 feet) long, and it was flying the American flag."

Ahmad and 126 other refugees boarded the vessel. "We were lucky and the boat had a powerful engine," says Ahmad. "We reached Italy four days later."

It didn't escape the notice of Ahmad and the others that, after landing in Capo Cimiti on the Calabrian coast, their skipper -- a 28-year-old Turk named Koç Can -- tried to masquerade as a deaf-mute refugee. But they didn't know who the masterminds behind their journey were. They didn't know who collected the proceeds of at least €800,000.

Istanbul has long been notorious in the law enforcement community as a hub of international human trafficking. In 2011 alone, more than 9,000 traffickers in Turkey accumulated $303 million in profits, according to a report by the International Terrorism Center of the Turkish Police Academy. A guard assigned to protect the refugees in Istanbul, for example, charges $30. Boat renters demand at least $3,000 a week. And the captain of an expedition to the Italian coast collects up to $10,000 per trip.

Muammer Küçük, currently in hiding, has made a fortune in the human trafficking business -- at least according to the book "Confessions of a Human Trafficker," by northern Italian criminologist Andrea De Nicola and his co-author, Giampaolo Musumeci. Küçük, who has a long criminal record, lost 77 ships off the Italian coast in 2010 alone -- a number that offers insight into the enormous scale of the overall operation.

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nsmith 11/29/2014
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Human trafficking as profit motivation...And exactly therein lies the main problem. The sheer ruthlessness of these profiteers is beyond inhumane and needs to be penalized to the maximum extent of the law. And if the individual countries that allow this practice is either unable, or unwilling to take action, they should be brought before the World Court. To simply stand by and do nothing while thousands perish is criminal, not to mention the huge financial strain it id putting on overburdened taxpayers.
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