When Ahmed, a Syrian man now living in the UK, decided to flee his country in 2019, he sought the help of a smuggler to negotiate the frontier between Syria and neighbouring Turkey. Once safely through he began a year-long odyssey to the French coast, then across the Channel to England, his final destination.
The journey taken by Ahmed — not his real name — involved a series of ad hoc arrangements that most migrants make as they move across continents. He hired another smuggler to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, clung to the bottom of a truck to cross from Hungary into Austria, walked across the Austrian border into Germany and paid a friend fuel money to drive him into France. Finally, he boarded a small boat to cross the channel to England.
His route illustrates how the networks that facilitate migrants’ journeys are more complex than many realise, mixing personal initiative, help from other migrants, opportunistic criminals and organised gangs. “It is not as smoothly executed as it might appear,” said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
The question for law-enforcement agencies across Europe is how these different groups can be tackled, particularly when victims often regard them as offering a helpful, life-transforming service.
The dangers facing migrants were highlighted last month when 27 people drowned after their boat sank during a crossing of the English Channel. The smugglers who arranged the trip were described by Tom Pursglove, UK immigration minister, as “evil criminal gangs” who treated individuals as “cargo”.
According to Reitano, the dangerous borders on the edges of the EU, such as the intensively monitored Channel or the Mediterranean, require organised specialists to manage crossings. Criminal gangs have stepped in to meet the demand.
“There are definitely specialists who do different borders,” including the Sahara and the Mediterranean, she said. “There are a small cluster — one group, essentially, or a group with small splinters — who are monopolising the Channel crossing,” she added.
But the distinction between smuggler and smuggled is frequently blurred. In places, some migrants, known as rehber from the Turkish word for “guide”, use co-ordinates supplied by the smugglers to lead fellow travellers across borders or through other difficult terrain.
Maddie Harris, founder of Humans for Rights Network, which advocates for people travelling to seek asylum, said she had encountered “all kinds of different people” involved in smuggling.
“Often what we see is young men coerced and manipulated into fulfilling the function of a smuggler, whether that be closing a lorry door or the equivalent on a small boat, in exchange for a more affordable passage or simply just passage,” she said.
Harris spent two years working at refugee camps in northern France, and faced threats from some of the smugglers who operated there. “They’re rapists, they’re murderers and it’s an incredibly dangerous place,” she recalled.
Benny Hunter, project co-ordinator for the Da’aro Youth Project, which helps people who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied minors from Eritrea, said migrants were pushed to smugglers because all other routes were closed.
“These are people who are just providing a service based on a need that exists because of the way the asylum system is set up,” he said, adding that in one case a young Eritrean boy’s smuggler acted as “a kind of childminder” to him.
Migrant journeys work differently depending on the nationality of the person travelling. Nando Sigona, an immigration expert at Birmingham university, said that for people like Ahmed, who are fleeing a country with an active conflict, the initial impulse was simply to move somewhere safe.
“The next step is you go in a place and spend enough time there and you meet people from your country of origin, who speak your language,” he said. “It’s fragmented.”
However, people travelling from wealthier countries often make an arrangement with a smuggler before leaving home, according to Sigona. Migrants from China, for example, can travel to Albania without a visa so only need to take a short clandestine journeys onwards to western Europe, he said.
Fernand Gontier, chief of France’s border police, this week told a press conference in Calais that his officers had encountered smugglers from Vietnam — one of the wealthiest origin countries for migrants — among people it arrested in the first 10 months this year.
“They are particularly organised at the international level, very integrated, with funding that starts from the country of departure up to the countries of arrival,” Gontier said.
In most cases, though, the identity of those running the most exploitative operations is less clear than the nationalities of their customers.
Reitano said her research suggested the Channel operation was run by North Africans, either born in countries such as Morocco or of North African origin living in France.
But Ahmed said he had not encountered any North Africans, adding that the best-known smuggler was an Iranian known as Benjamin, whose operations were rarely disrupted by the police.
Gontier differentiated between loosely run efforts co-ordinated by people from African countries and the more tightly organised trips, which he attributed mostly to Iraqi Kurds. “This is serious organised crime, acting on an industrial scale,” he said.
Ahmed’s ultimate success underlines the challenge of eradicating the trade. The smugglers helped him get across the Channel in January, after “seven or eight” attempts foiled either by the police or by problems with the boat.
“They would gather us and take us to different points on the beach and we would sit and wait until a car that they were in touch with arrived,” Ahmed said. “They’d tell the driver where to stop, then he would stop and they would rush over to it, and pull out the dinghy.”
Ahmed said he had been fortunate to arrive in Calais, where he spent about four months, in late 2020. Coronavirus lockdowns were hitting trade so while most migrants paid between £2,100 and £2,500 for the trip, the smugglers were willing to accept less than £760 from Ahmed.
The British government has since recognised him as a legitimate refugee and granted him residence rights. The lure of winning such protection will outweigh the risks of being smuggled as long as there is no alternative route, said Reitano.
The UK has resisted demands to offer would-be refugees the chance to make asylum applications from outside the UK. Supporters of the reform say it would remove the incentive for future Ahmeds to cross the Channel to lodge claims. The government is instead introducing legislation to deter migrants by eroding the rights of those who reach the UK by illegal means.
Reitano predicted the English language and the UK’s established immigrant communities would trump those measures.
“You can tell them to stay in France but they don’t want to because they don’t want to learn French and they don’t have a family there,” Reitano said. “Creating safe routes and, obviously, closing down the success of the illegal ones is ultimately the route to success.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan