Conflict, unrest and poor living conditions in the Middle East and Africa have significantly increased the number of migrants – legal and illegal – and many countries are struggling to cope, closing borders and putting the Schengen “free travel” agreement at risk.
Furthermore, migrant smuggling has become big business, with suspects originating from over 100 countries. Profits are often used for nefarious means, such as terrorism funding, and some migrants are even channeled into terrorism activity to repay their debts to the smugglers.
Intelligence from Europol indicates thatmore than 90 percent of all migrants reaching the European Union use the facilitation services of a migrant smuggling network at some point throughout their journey. Migrant smuggling networks have proven flexible and resilient, adapting to law enforcement action by quickly changing the routes used to smuggle migrants to the European Union (EU).
The findings of a new report on migrant smuggling networks underline the need for an accurate and in-depth understanding of the wide range of illicit services offered by migrant smugglers, and their operating methods, in order to dismantle their criminal networks.
The report, jointly published by INTERPOL and Europol on May 17, provides comprehensive insight into the activities, organizational structures, operating capabilities, geographical hotspots of migrant smugglers and their estimated profits.
It estimates that the annual turnover of migrant smuggling was worth an estimated USD 5 to 6 billion in 2015, representing one of the main profit-generating activities for organized criminals in Europe.
Other key findings reveal that the facilitators behind migrant smuggling are organized in loosely connected networks. The structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who loosely coordinate activities along a given route, organizers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low level facilitators. Furthermore, migrant smuggling suspects tend to have previous connections with other types of crime.
While a systematic link between migrant smuggling and terrorism has not been proven at this time, there is an increased risk that foreign terrorist fighters may use migratory flows to enter or re-enter the EU.
Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol, said that the report describes the huge role played by organized crime networks in the migration crisis and sends a clear message to the EU and its member states that “we must combat these networks in the strongest possible terms”.
The recent establishment of the new European Migrant Smuggling Centre at Europol, and its collaboration with INTERPOL and other partners, has provided operational means to help meet this goal.
INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock said that while Europe may be the destination for these migrants, the crisis cannot be resolved by police and policy makers in the region alone. “This comprehensive joint analysis will serve as the basis for targeted and meaningful joint actions in Europe and around the world,” he said.