Over the last three years, people smugglers have pocketed more than EUR 330 million from their criminal operations on the Western and Central Mediterranean migratory routes. And, with the shift in patterns of migration across the Mediterranean, the European Border Guard and Coast Guard agency, Frontex, has also noticed a change in how these criminal groups are reaping their profits from the misery of migrants seeking to cross the sea.
For a good part of the decade, it was the Central Mediterranean where criminal groups were seeing massive earnings. In 2017 alone, criminal networks smuggling migrants to Italy by boat generated nearly EUR 135 million in 2017, charging EUR 1,300 per person. In mid-2018, the smuggling fees increased to EUR 1,800 per person, while the overall income of the smuggling networks decreased to just over EUR 24 million in 2018, and to over EUR 12 million in 2019 due to a drop in the number of migrants.
Meanwhile, smuggling networks operating the Western Mediterranean route saw their profits surge. While before migrants paid from EUR 500 to EUR 1000 to be smuggled from Algeria to Spain, and EUR 1000 to EUR 2000 from Morocco to Spain, from mid-2018 the fees reached EUR 3000 per person. This was in large part due to the fact that Sub-Saharan migrants, who usually pay larger amounts of money to smugglers, saw the Western Mediterranean as an alternative to the Central Mediterranean route. Those from West Africa started travelling to Algeria and Morocco, via Mali and Mauritania, and then further to Spain by boat.
Frontex estimates that while in 2017 people smuggling networks operating in Morocco took in nearly EUR 35 million, the following year they enjoyed a windfall of roughly EUR 105 million. As the number of people crossing the Western Mediterranean dropped in 2019 with fewer sub-Saharan migrants, criminal groups saw their income drop again to EUR 19 million.
The price increase also led to a higher sophistication of the service provided by smugglers (for example, smuggling more people at once) and to an increase in the number of criminals involved. This, in turn, might lead to an increase of other illegal activities, such as money laundering, corruption or smuggling of goods. As the fees continue to rise, migrants might again start looking for cheaper alternative routes.