According to a newly released EURO-Pol / Interpol report, more than 90% of migrants coming to the EU are facilitated by smugglers. Many of the refugees we have spoken with describe their experiences dealing with smugglers, who charge hundreds of euros a head to get people from Turkey to Greece. They describe their experiences as horrible but necessary, as the smugglers would pile people on top of one another, sometimes doubling the capacity of inflatable dinghies, taking people’s phones and forcing them to leave behind baby formula and all their possessions. To avoid detection, the refugee boats had to navigate in the middle of the night, sometimes without a driver or even a map for direction. These conditions contribute largely to the death toll in the Mediterranean Sea, which has reached nearly 3,000 drownings this year alone. Interpol also notes that many asylum seekers enter into debt with the smugglers, which can lead to various forms of exploitation.
In efforts to crack down on smugglers, Interpol initiated Operation HYDRA. The irony of this name is hard to miss. In their report, Interpol themselves acknowledge that smuggling routes are diverse and constantly shifting to avoid detection. Even if some smugglers are caught, the smuggling industry is still lucrative, turning over an estimated 5 to 6 billion USD last year alone. Like the mythical hydra creature, smuggling networks do not die when their heads are cut off; more heads continue to emerge. Even though arrivals of asylum seekers in Greece have tapered off since the EU-Turkey deal, smugglers are selling their services and falsifying documents to help people leave Greece and move elsewhere within the E.U.
Although increased border patrols and police intelligence may lead to more arrests of smugglers, this alone is not enough to stop cross-border smuggling. Many international humanitarian organizations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, advocate for Europe to provide safe passage to asylum seekers, so that people do not have to risk their lives to apply for asylum in Europe. The heart of the matter is that people feel desperate and trapped, and other countries in the EU are not yet efficiently coordinating their efforts to facilitate family reunification. In a recent personal example, a mother traveling alone with her child had all the necessary documents to reunite with her husband who was already working elsewhere in the EU, but she has been stuck in processing, living in poor conditions for over 5 months, with no anticipated end date to her waiting. There is no ‘silver bullet’ policy solution to the complex issue of smuggling, and because asylum-seekers are in this waiting game, smugglers have the second opportunity to move people across borders.