Day 6

Inside the big business of people smuggling

Thousands of migrants were stranded off the coast of southern Thailand this week, as European countries looked for solutions to crack down on human smugglers. Journalist Giampaolo Musumeci spent two years inside the criminal networks that move migrants around the world.

Journalist Giampaolo Musumeci spent two years travelling with human smugglers around the world

Migrants stand on board Italian Navy ship Chimera before disembarking in the southern harbour of Salerno on Wednesday. (Ciro De Luca/Reuters)

The United Nations is warning of a growing humanitarian disaster in Southeast Asia, after thousands of migrants were stranded off the coast of southern Thailand this week. Meanwhile, European Union asked the UN for help in cracking down on human smuggling networks that are bringing migrants to European shores. But who are the human smugglers, and how do they operate? Journalist Giampaolo Musumeci, spent two years travelling with them, for the book he co-wrote, "Confessions of a People Smuggler".

The European Union is pushing for military action to intercept and destroy the boats before they're used to target migrants. Do you think that will work? 

A couple of weeks ago, one of the three governments in Libya said that any military action will have a reaction from that. So I see a very dangerous step. Secondly, traffickers sometimes steal boats from the fisherman. So how can you distinguish in a military operation, a boat stolen maybe a couple of hours ago from a fisherman, or maybe a Tunisian or Egyptian fisherman? We have to stop considering smuggling a business for desperate people. We're talking about very organized, skilled, and talented people who can find a new way to do their business. So I'm a little bit concerned about the answer of the European Union because it seems to be that they're trying to heal the symptom, which is the boat driver, the last ring of the chain in this big network. 

We're talking about a travel agency, probably the cruelest illegal travel agency in the world- Journalist Giampaolo Musumeci, on criminal human smuggling networks

Some of the people smugglers that you traveled with have very different methods. Tell me about Alexander, the Siberian smuggler. How does he move people from Afghanistan into Italy? 

That's one of the most amazing stories we tell in our book. We met him in an Italian prison, and the idea of the boss of the Turkish network was not to use a big cargo or a fish boat, but a luxury yacht. So Alexander used to drive the luxury yacht from the Turkish coast to the Southern Italian coast and it was used to make several trips as a touristic trip, but inside the boat he would not have American families on holiday, but 40 Afghans hidden and trying to get to Italy. This strategy was very effective because even the Italian coast guard couldn't imagine that someone would think to use the luxury yacht. 

So how much money do you think Alexander was making in the year before he was busted? 

Not too much because he was just the boat driver. For every trip he earned like €5,000. For each migrant inside the boat, the cost of the trip was around €8,000.

How much money do the big bosses make?

We are talking about amounts of 10 million euros every year at least. But we can just estimate.They use cash, or they use informal banking system like the Hawala banking, which is a system based on trust and confidence, but it's completely hidden, so the police cannot follow the money. 

 How does how do the smugglers work? If I was looking to get from Syria to Spain, how do I make contact with a human smuggler?

There is a huge variety of "marketing strategies" because we're talking about a travel agency. Probably the cruelest illegal travel agency in the world. Everywhere you are in the world, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Syria, if you want to move to Europe you certainly know someone else who is already in Europe. So you're going to call him and ask, "Which smuggler did you use?" Some of the smugglers, they have marketing agents underground in every little village all over the world. If you want to go to Europe just spread your voice and you will find a man. These men are going to let you make a contact with the boss to discuss the trips, the details, the money, and so on. It sounds crazy because you can have the Facebook page of illegal smugglers promoting the trip with pictures of kids, pictures of big ships, the crews, and the cost for the trip. Fake passports and so on. 

Rohingya migrants sit and stand on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images) (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty)

But you're talking about people who may in some cases be traveling on their life savings. How do they know that it's safe to hand over money to anyone along this criminal enterprise route?

One of the big boss smugglers we portray in our book is a Turkish smuggler boss. He created a strategy using intermediaries in Istanbul and they keep the money until the clients reach Europe safely. In those cases the clients, the migrants, call the intermediary and say, "I'm okay, I'm in Italy, you can give the money to the boss or to the smuggler." Taking care of the clients, that's the point. We don't have to think that the main goal of the smuggler is to kill their clients.

But that's still happening. I understand that this is a business and so trust needs to be fostered in order for the business to continue but then you see the conditions on the boats that have been arriving in Italy that are undeniably horrible and people are dying. Who are the people operating those boats? 

Correct, you're right. But the problem of the Libyan smuggling market, is that it's completely out of control. They don't need to to work on reputation. They don't need to take care of their clients, because their clients are locked in Libya.They have no choice but to put their life in the hands of the smugglers. So the smugglers can do whatever they want because they will not lose their clients. There is an increasing number of amateur smugglers who put very old boats in the water,they don't give life jackets, just because this market is completely crazy. 

And those are probably the boats that the E.U. is talking about taking out of the equation. One of the other proposals that the E.U. came up with this week is this idea of quotas for the number of migrants coming into each E.U. country and asking the E.U. to bear those numbers equally. How far do you think quotas would go in tackling the problem? 

It's a good step in the right direction because because it's not an Italian problem, is not a Greek problem, it's a European problem. At the same time, when I when I look at the numbers they are talking about --  20,000 more refugees to distribute among the European Union countries -- it's a very very poor number and it will not solve the problem. I mean when you build a wall, you just make the trip longer, more dangerous, and it's going to increase the businesses of the smugglers. You never stop them because Alexander the Siberian smuggler we met in prison told us, "You can never stop them. Remember that Moses was the first smuggler in history, and I am like Moses."

Alexander the Siberian people smuggler compared himself to Moses, so what is it that he understands that leaders of the E.U. nations are failing to understand about people smuggling? 

When we talk about a smuggler like Alexander, they are very conscious people, they know what they're doing and they study the European laws and they read the newspaper. They're ready to react to any European answer. They have exactly all the skills that European Union is missing. They talk to each other, they work with each other, they collaborate, they send money to each other, and they plan everything. Probably the most important thing is that the smugglers are offering a service. Let's offer this opportunity with humanitarian corridors to the migrants so we can steal the weapons from the hands of the smugglers, we can destroy their business. Because the smugglers sell dreams, they sell Europe, and they sell political asylum. That's the point.