Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Rise in criminal smuggling gangs challenges EU policy

  • People continue to rely on smugglers to reach Europe (Photo: Jan Kuntra)

Europe's aim of smashing the smugglers' business model when it comes to migration appears to be struggling to produce the desired results in the Western Balkan region.

Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex, earlier this week noted "more and more smuggling activities".

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Speaking to MEPs in the civil liberties committee, he also said there are now "more flexible organised criminal groups" and "criminal coalitions dealing with trafficking in human beings."

The admission appears to counter EU and national claims on curbing the smuggling trade in general.

Leggeri himself did not elaborate on reasons why.

But he was speaking in the wider context of the new Italian-led Frontex operation (known as Themis), while making the case for a more "integrated coastguard approach."

Themis stretches from the western side of Sardinia to the Adriatic sea facing the Western Balkan region.

The anti-smuggling crusade, along with saving people's lives at sea and providing more legal pathways for migration, are described by the European Commission as core elements on its broader migration policies.

While the rise of such gangs appear to be concentrated in the Western Balkan region, other separate efforts are geared towards cracking down on Libyan traffickers.

In February, Leggeri said the drop of crossings from Libya to Italy was due, in part, to internal developments in Libya but also because "criminal networks were not able to operate as easy as they used to operate previously in Libya."

Among the EU's biggest projects is Operation Sophia, a flotilla of military ships tasked to crack down on smugglers from Libya. Sophia has since 2015 apprehended 137 suspected smugglers and traffickers and neutralised 537 vessels.

Although fewer people are crossing from Libya to the Italy compared with last year, it still remains the primary departure point from the north African coast, followed by Tunisia which now accounts for around 20 percent of all crossings.

All-inclusive trafficking fee

Fewer people are also arriving in Libya from Niger, although more movement has been spotted from Nigeria into Chad and then into Libya. People also continue to cross into from Sudan, many of whom come from Eritrea.

"In east Africa, the system is all inclusive, you pay the trafficker there who takes you to Europe," said Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee special envoy to the region, earlier this month.

A mix of Malians, Sudanese, Chadians find themselves in southern Libya, a largely lawless area marked by tribal conflicts.

Around 1,300 are said to have arrived there over the past two months, many civilians, some members of the Sudanese Darwforian opposition and Chadian opposition movements.

Libyan authorities had recently issued 205 arrest warrants for traffickers, many of them linked to the Libyan security apparatus. It is unclear how many have actually been apprehended.

Similar findings of Libyan officials plying the smuggling trade were also detailed last summer in a UN security council report.

The same report outlined how middle men in Europe where shuffling weapons to Libya, from countries like Serbia, and tracked stolen oil shipments from Libya coordinated by a company registered in Malta.

Cochetel says the EU needs to follow the US Treasury department decision to sanction fuel smugglers and freeze company assets.

"That money is fuelling [the] capacity of some of those militias involved in the human trafficking of people in Libya," he said.

Cochetal, citing figures from the EU's statistics office Eurostat, said around a quarter of all people that arrive to Europe from west Africa receive some form of protection, compared to around 11 percent from north Africa, and 78 percent from east Africa.

Evacuated women from Libya arrive newly-pregnant

Niger has temporarily stopped all evacuations from Libya detention centres under an EU funded programme because so few are being resettled to Europe. Many of those that have been evacuated are pregnant, with some asking for HIV testing.

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Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms had its rescue boat seized by Italian authorities in Sicily earlier this month. Three employees have been accused of migrant trafficking and face up to 15 years in jail and huge fines.

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