Organisation of the smuggling process

Organisation of the smuggling process

The duration of the smuggling process may vary greatly, depending on, inter alia, the route used and its organization. If an entire route is designed and offered by smugglers as a package, the duration of the travel may be relatively short, usually lasting a few weeks, or perhaps months. The smugglers provide migrants with lists of contacts for each step of the travel. Once they have successfully managed to cross one border, the smuggled migrants may be instructed to move to a specific location and to contact a particular person who will facilitate the crossing of the next border. This continues until the final destination is reached. Smuggling organisations operating in this way are able to move people relatively fast. For example, surveys have shown that smugglers can move migrants from South Asia through West Asia and into Greece along the Eastern Mediterranean route in approximately 15-20 days.

In other cases, the whole journey is a combination of different, shorter legs organised individually. Migrants decide each specific section according to their available financial resources, the urgency of their journey and information regarding risks, enforcement measures and likelihood of a successful journey. In these cases, migrants usually contact different smugglers at each crossing point. The whole journey - from initial departure to final destination - may even take years.

Smugglers may organise the stand by in a point of transit or departure, waiting for the right moment to cross the border. Similarly, in many cases, smugglers also organise the arrival in safe areas in destination countries. One of the factors which may cause delays is lengthy waiting periods during the travel.

Another factor that may delay the smuggling process is when it is necessary to use slow modes of travelling. Some land borders may require one or more days of walking through hazardous areas. For instance, crossing from Eritrea or Ethiopia requires 2-6 days of walking to Sudan and 20 days to Egypt, or less if smugglers organise transportation by pick-up trucks. From Sudan to Libya, the passage is normally organised by car and it takes a few days. Somali migrants smuggled to Yemen need to walk up to 17 days to be smuggled into Saudi Arabia.

The durations of sea crossings are more predictable, and largely connected to the distance between the departure and arrival points. Such voyages may take a few hours, such as the passage from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands, a few days, such as the journey from Libya to Italy or Malta, or even a few months, as in the August 2010 case when nearly 500 Sri Lankans arrived in Canada after three months at sea. However, such big events are sporadic.

Characteristics of departure points

When analysing the features which can have an impact on the establishment of a significant smuggling route from a departure location, usually there is first a pressure towards the border. This is caused by an increased number of migrants hoping to cross the border but who do not have legal, affordable ways to do so. The smugglers capitalise on this demand to generate profits by facilitating irregular border crossings by migrants; that is, smuggling them. Several factors affect the selection of departure points, including geographical location, environmental characteristics, seasonal difference, safety and security considerations, sternness or leniency of border control, knowledge of routes and territorial control, which may be combined with other factors.

At the border crossing, smugglers tend to choose the place of departure on the basis of its proximity to the desired destination, as this minimises travel distance and thus risks and costs. The shortest passage may not always be the preferred route to cross the borders, however. Geographical and natural obstacles may determine the selection of more distant, but safer locations. The extent of national authorities’ control at origin and / or destination would normally also have an impact on the choice of departure point.

One example that illustrates how geographical distance can be trumped by other considerations relates to smuggling by sea from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. This smuggling route typically departs from the province of Obock in Djibouti or Bossaso in Somalia. While the first passage can be undertaken in less than 6 hours, the second requires more than 24 hours of sea travel. The number of migrants using one or the other passage has fluctuated, according to seasons, border controls, protection risks for migrants and other factors. Similar examples can be drawn from many of the border crossing assessed in this study, from African smugglers instructing migrants to use longer routes, to the smuggling activity along the border between Mexico and the United States of America.

Border controls play a major role in the choice of border crossing. Not surprisingly, smugglers tend to prefer crossings where controls are limited, which minimises their risk of apprehension. When possible, smugglers select departure points in territories that are very well known to them, and where they often enjoy the complicity of local communities. This makes it easier for smuggling networks to carry out their crimes.

Some clear examples can be found in the Sahel and the Sahara where many border crossings are facilitated by smugglers belonging to ethnic groups - including the Tuareg, the Toubou, the Rashaida and others – that have historically been in control of the nomad routes along these territories. Similarly, Kurdish smuggling networks are spread across several countries along the West Asian land route, with some members roving between different transit and destination points.

Territorial control is also useful for smugglers in other ways. Along many smuggling routes, there are establishments (often called safe houses, smuggler houses or similar) used by smugglers to hide their activities, gather the required number of migrants before departure, store equipment, brief migrants about the passage, and to house migrants while waiting for the right moment to embark on the journey. These houses are normally located very close to the border. Especially for sea crossings, these facilities can be capable of hosting large numbers of migrants for extended periods of time. Their establishment and operation are only possible in areas where smugglers have the complicity of local communities and, often, of the authorities.

Territorial control, at least in departure zones, is required to carry out smuggling by sea. Departure points for sea crossings have to be accessible to smugglers for storage, boarding and for the actual departure of boats. In many cases, smugglers managing departure points are part of local communities historically tied to the sea, like fisher- men and sailors, who have knowledge of equipment, sea- sons and times, as well as places to cross the sea.

Vessels used for sea crossings normally depart from coastal villages close to major cities where smugglers sell their services to migrants through smuggling hubs. The coastal villages are where vessels are stored, boarded and depart to sea.

Characteristics of arrival points

The considerations that drive the selection of the arrival points partially overlap with the criteria for departure points, including geography and natural characteristics, safety and security aspects, and the nature of border controls. In addition, availability of smugglers’ networks at destination as well as several policy issues such as asylum procedures and deportation practices have an impact on the selection of arrival points.

As a result, arrival points tend to change according to the routes, the smugglers and the service agreed with the migrants. In some cases, migrants buy smuggling “pack- ages” that include inland routes or passages to the next leg of the journey. In these cases, smugglers need to have contacts or infrastructure in place on the other side of the border. Migrants who are smuggled from Somalia into Kenya, for example, cross the borders in certain locations where they can look for drivers to transport them to Nairobi where the next leg of the journey is organised by other smugglers. Similar methods are found along other African routes, where smugglers guide migrants to locations where, once the border has been crossed, the migrants head to the closest smuggling hub where the next leg of their journey is organised.

Where to cross and arrive is strictly related to the modus operandi of the smugglers. Smugglers may choose points of arrival according to the citizenship of migrants because this influences the action that migrants are likely to take once at destination. Smuggled migrants with particular citizenships may want to identify themselves to the authorities at destination and apply for asylum. In this case, smugglers select crossing points where the competent authorities are more likely to grant asylum for persons with these citizenships. The smugglers normally instruct migrants about asylum application procedures. For smuggled migrants with other citizenships for which asylum may not be an option and repatriation agreements do not exist, smugglers may select points of destination where migrant reception centres are overcrowded, so that they can be quickly released with an expulsion order. In the absence of a repatriation agreement with the country of origin, migrants are left with an order to leave the country, but are not repatriated.

Other migrants may have citizenships which smugglers know are returned immediately to the country of origin or transit once detected. For these migrants, smugglers may select arrival points to reduce the probability of detection. Smugglers may also ‘sell’ additional travel to specific cities or regions within the destination country. Smugglers may also guide migrants to particular locations.

Migrants’ citizenships can also determine the type of journey. For migrants who are not seeking asylum, smugglers arrange travel routes and landing spots with little surveillance. For migrants who are planning to hide at destination, smugglers attempt shorter journeys and fast boats, leveraging on the rapidity of the passage to avoid detection. In these latter cases, smugglers may release migrants in the water just off the coasts and return to the point of departure.

In some cases, smuggled migrants seek detection in order to apply for asylum or to be released with an expulsion. In these cases, smugglers may opt to have the vessels intercepted at high seas by competent coast guards, leveraging international law to rescue people at sea in situations of distress.

A pattern that emerges from the analysis of sea smuggling routes is that smugglers sometimes choose to target islands that may be distant from the mainland, but still under the authority of the destination country. Smugglers operating along the Central Mediterranean route, for example, have targeted the Italian island of Lampedusa as a point of arrival, located less than 300 kilometres north of Libya, and more than 200 kilometres south of the Italian mainland. Similarly, Lesbos, Kos, Chios and Samos, along with other Greek islands, are only a few hours away from the Turkish coast. These islands have been selected as the key arrival points along the Eastern Mediterranean route. Other such destinations include the Spanish Canary islands, close to the western coast of Africa and far from the Spanish mainland, the Australian territories of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef, only 350 and 150 kilometres from Indonesia, respectively, as well as the French territory of Mayotte, an archipelago in the Indian ocean, situated between Mozambique and Madagascar.

These arrival points have in common that they offer physical entry into the closest territory (relative to the location of the smuggled migrants) of a destination country. The majority of migrants that arrive in these small islands do not intend to remain there, but want to continue to the mainland. The choice of these arrival points is usually motivated by the opportunity to apply for asylum. Once the claim has been filed, the authorities typically relocate the migrants to the mainland while proceeding with the refugee status determination. The targeting of these small islands has largely stopped in view of various policy measures in destination countries, such as containment in origin or transit countries or immediate migrant relocation in mainland or in third countries.

Characteristics of airports used for smuggling by air

Different patterns emerge with regard to smuggling by air. The selection of departure and arrival airports depends on the specific smuggling method employed by the criminals. One method aims at connecting major international airports at origin and destination. The second makes use of ad hoc ‘airports of convenience’ as transit before continuing the travel by land, sea or other air connections.

In the first case, smugglers usually rely on forged or fraudulently obtained travel documents and/or corrupt officials at origin and/or destination. Depending on the nationality of migrants, the targeted airports are often those with direct connections to the desired destinations.36 Some South and South-West Asians, for example, have used major international airports in South Asia to fly directly to desired destinations using fraudulent documents.

However, the second method, making use of transit air- ports to reach final destinations, appears to be more wide- spread. Such journeys start with a flight from a major airport in the migrant’s own country to a transit country. From there, local smugglers may arrange the next passage via land, sea or again by air to the final destination. These operations may be complex, and could involve, for example, Asians flying to major Eastern European airports, and then transiting overland to the European Union.

In the European Union, the use of transit airports to smuggle migrants by air is more common than the use of direct flights. Among all entry document fraud cases detected in European airports involving citizens of African countries during the first half of 2016, almost 70% related to flights coming from transit airports. Similarly, most Asians detected with counterfeit passports at EU airports had departed from international airports in Africa or the Middle East. Such transits are preferred to direct flights because smugglers hope for more lenient controls of passengers arriving from these third countries.

In the Western Hemisphere, migrants from the Caribbean may fly to countries with fewer access restrictions, from where they contact smugglers to cross the land borders to other South American countries. There is evidence that smugglers use some African airports as transits for Asian migrants en route to countries in South America, Central America or the Caribbean. From there, they may be smuggled northwards and eventually cross into the United States of America at that country’s southern land border. During fiscal year 2016, the United States recorded 55,000 irregular entries by citizens of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East at its southern border, indicating that making use of a combination of air and land routes to reach North America is an established tactic of smuggling.

IMAGE CREDIT: Greenpeace

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