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Transformations in the Role of Human Smuggling Gangs in the Region

17 October 2016

Smuggling gangs are the main mechanism that many unlawful, irregular, and illegal immigrants turn to, from many states in the region, whether through marine routes or the land and desert borders. Immigrants use a member from these criminal organizations, which take the form of a “network.” These members are travel agencies, lawyers, bankers, operation offices, interpreters, housing agencies, and drivers, who move them to assembly points. Hotel receptionists, then, receive the immigrants, in addition to those who have previously experienced illegal immigration. This reflects their excellence, planning, and expertise, from the junior smuggler to the major officials, making it a multilateral procedure, as per requirements of the immigration stages linked to the methods, groups, smuggling time, and expense payment mechanisms.

Official estimates on the overall numbers of illegal immigrants in the Middle East are unavailable; however, reports of international organizations and research centers point out that the numbers are spreading in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, as well as many African countries including Eritrea, Chad, Niger, and Mali, which make the Arab countries their transit station to move to the European countries, particularly Spain, Greece, and Belgium.

It is not required that the smuggler be from the same country from which some of its citizens try to escape the internal conditions; many of them hold different nationalities and are present at the crossing points of the other countries and at the borders between them.

The Legitimacy of Illegitimacy

The roles of these gangs have increased in a number of the region’s countries following the increasing demand on their illegal services, especially that they practice their activities in light of the failure to set the borders and the absence of deterrent laws in the states of transit. Moreover, these activities yield immense profits that sometimes exceed those from weapon and drug trade, and they have the support of the traditional economic networks in parallel with the inability of the security entities to sometimes curb and track them. At the end, this has led to the “legitimacy of illegitimacy” in human smuggling, whether they were men, women, young people, or minors; sometimes they are pregnant mothers as well, and other times entire families and groups coming from areas of conflict are smuggled.

Prospered Trade

Recently, the region’s states have witnessed an escalated illegal immigration movement. On 21 September 2016, the boat “Procession of the Prophet” sank in Rashid, in Beheira governorate, killing over 200 immigrants due to the overload of 400 individuals. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) issued a statement which pointed out to an increase in the number of Egyptian immigrants in 2016, while, according to the official spokesperson of the Armed Forces Mohamed Samir, the border guards have caught 603 illegal immigrants on 27 September, of which 411 people were in the northern military zone in Rashid and Abu Qir, 183 people were in the western military zone, and 9 Syrian people in the southern military area. Moreover, on 28 September, the Egyptian security forces were able to frustrate the illegal infiltration of Egyptians, Sudanese, and Syrians to Libya through Sallum.

On 27 September, the Yemeni authorities, affiliated to the legitimate government headed by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, announced the deportation of at least 220 African immigrants, most of whom are Ethiopian, who illegally resided in Aden, the temporary capital of the state, in addition to the 500 African immigrants that were deported in the past three weeks, raising questions with regard to the relation of some of them with the African mercenaries who are brought by the Houthis movement to take part in the Yemeni conflict. Furthermore, in 10 September, the Moroccan security forces stood up against an infiltration attempt of 240 immigrants who tried to arrive to Ceuta, while 60 immigrants were able to cross. In this regard, some official Moroccan statistics point out to the presence of 24,000 to 40,000 illegal immigrants from south of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, the sending countries were not the only ones to discover these networks but the receiving countries as well. In 27 September, the Belgium police announced the disassembling of an Iraqi immigrant smuggling network in three cities, including Brussels. The smugglers get paid $5,000 to $20,000 per person. On 5 August, the Italian police, too, announced the dismantling of an immigrant smuggling network led by a Tunisian Jihadist. The news were released on the Jihadist’s social media websites indicating his support for the terrorist attacks against Paris and Brussels, especially in light of Rome’s fear of attacks by the Islamic State (IS), which are present in Libyan areas close to their marine borders.

Spanish authorities have also dismantled an Iranian human smuggling network in the same month, with a sum of $20,000 to $50,000 per person through forged passports. One of the network members is a Persian translator in Spain, and he takes advantage of his relations and knowledge of the Spanish immigration laws to bring immigration to Spain and thus to other countries of the European Union (EU).

Additionally, there are also organizations which are spread on the Turkey-Syria borders and who are transported through boats from Izmir, Bodrum, and Marmaris to Greece. These organizations work in the business of trade and smuggling of refugees, which led to some accidents including the drowning of 69 people in the Aegean Sea, on 6 September, off the western Turkish coasts and eastern Greek coasts, who were of African and Syrian Kurds nationalities. Through the previously mentioned, it is evident that the human smuggling networks do not only exist in the Middle Eastern countries but are also run by international “mafia.” According to UN statistics, the numbers of illegal immigrants have jumped to over 62 million people around the world. Moving from the general to the specificities, it is worth noting that some shifts explain the escalating pattern of human smuggling by the active criminal gangs in the region, particularly with their strong ties with their counterparts in Europe and Africa. These shifts are explained in the points that follow:

Islamist Gangs

1. Reformation of “smuggling gangs” in the phase that follows the revolutionary movement: The reactions that followed 2011 led to the re-organization of the gangs of smuggling in the majority of the countries which witnessed reflections of the revolutionary movement on their internal security, particularly their borderlines, for example, the Tunisian borderlines following the Jasmine Revolution. Consequently, this resulted in the reformation of the gangs of smuggling, whether traders on the borders with Algeria or the tribes on the border with Libya, weakening the state’s control and paving the way to the existence of dangerous types of smuggling, especially human smuggling. The International Crisis Group called this interweaving between the criminal gangs and the extremist groups “Islamist Gangs” which contributed to the emergence of groups that combine Jihad with organized crime inside the transnational smuggling networks. The marginalized border areas are integrated with these networks through taking advantage of their indignation against the economic and social conditions and their lack of interest in protecting the state’s land security. They then formed a parallel economy with profitable returns, known as “fraud economy” in Ben Gardane on the Libya-Tunisia borders within the “Dolab” networks, which are networks for the smuggling of goods and humans and have the support of tribal economic networks.

2. Pumping of financial resources to the heart of the terrorist organizations: IS organization, for example, gains the financial support and combat survival from several smuggling networks, the most prominent of which is human trafficking, which explains the rise in the numbers of fighters from Sub-Saharan Africa in IS lines, particularly in Libya. As per statistical reports of the European Union Agency for the operational management on the external borders of the European Union members (Frontex), IS earns huge sums of money in return for facilitating immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. The organization was able to change the destination of many illegal immigrants; instead of immigrating to Europe, the immigrants joined the fighters’ lines.

3. Support of the ruling elite groups for the illegal immigration groups: This is evident in the situation of some of Al Assad regime figures in Syria, who support the immigration of “wealthy” Syrians on overloaded boats, or hiding them in livestock transport trucks or ship refrigerators, through a smuggling network that extends from Lebanon and Turkey to some European countries, including the UK, France, Austria, Italy, Sweden, and Bulgaria, as some wealthy segments in relatively stable provinces, Damascus, for example, demand that they move to other countries even if they were geographically far from Syria, to get away from the flames of conflict.

4. Consolidation of the family pattern among the parties of the smuggling networks: There are gangster formations in some countries, for example, Egypt, ruled by families that employ middlemen in a great number of the provinces in which demand is high from citizens on illegal immigration. They target African refugees as well. In this context, some written articles refer to Borg Moghaizel village, north of the Nile Delta, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. A huge number of the village people live on the human smuggling trade.

New Perpetrators

5.  Shift in the network of “secret leaders” who supervise the human smuggling mafia: The number of “invisible” perpetrators who stand against the middlemen, mediators, or human smuggling agents across the borders of the region’s states have changed. For example, following the revolution against Ben Ali’s regime, the Tunisian police lost contact with a huge side of the leaders network due to the enmity against representatives of internal security. Moreover, the tacit agreement between the security forces and the smuggling groups was broken off. This agreement stipulated the flow of humans as per the traffic map. Now, the passing of humans has become part of what is called the “market cake.” Consequently, Tunisia is now one of the countries with the highest number of exports of fighters to the combat field.

What’s more, the plotting of some security officials with these gangs resulted in doubled numbers of human smuggling, despite their claims of being in the lines of the regular forces fighting illegal immigration, which is what Libya has seen after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, especially that the security forces fighting immigration were in competition.

Many international studies came to the conclusion that immigrants cannot be smuggled on a large scale without the knowledge of those working in the “collapsing security forces” with the individuals of these gangs who forge passports and IDs. As a proof, in 17 July, 2016, the Sudanese security forces arrested members of a human smuggling network, some of whom are members of one of the regular forces in the country.

Loosening Management

6. Mimicking the increasing types of illegal economies: Especially in the armed Arab internal conflict states, where types of gangs have emerged, whose specialty is the trade of fighter smuggling, along the lines of weapon smuggling, drug planting, energy resource smuggling, monument trade, kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and prostitution. This is because this type of illegal trading is now more profitable than working in governmental jobs or private-sector jobs, fully creating a black market inside some societies in the area, in the context of the prolonged conflicting interactions.

A strategy adopted by some representatives of security forces in some of the region states has helped in this situation. The strategy stipulated the avoidance of total suffocation of smuggling prior to the revolutions, as they believed that the parallel economy is a “necessary evil.” Thus, members of the human smuggling gangs have quickly realized that the post-revolution phase is their golden opportunity for the flourishment of this trade, particularly in light of the pressing economic conditions, overflowing transitional shifts, and evident security shakes, giving complex motives to the illegal immigrants to ask for the roles of smugglers whose numbers have significantly increased.

Prolonged Alliances

7. Resorting to loose alliances which organize human trade: Those who look for illegal immigration through long roads, for example, immigration road from Eritrea to Israel, or from Somalia to South Africa, resort to smugglers, who take them in the first station of the phase. In a later phase, they travel alone to part of the road or may be brought to another smuggler through which is called unofficial chains, as Christopher Horwood, Coordinator of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) calls it, or loose alliances that differ from the traditional networks.

Organizational connections may be established between the illegal immigrants and the transnational organized crime networks which were able to smuggle them. These immigrants are taken advantage of through prostitution and weapon as well as drug trade. The risk lies when they return to their home countries with new identities. Money that is gained from refugees and immigrants is transported through borders and taken into the national economy to the automotive selling companies, stores, restaurants, and transport of travellers. In this case, smuggles could be of dual nationality.

8. Utilizing the social media networks to market for the smuggling network services: Some mediators publish advertisements with pictures of famous European landmarks attached, whether on Facebook or Twitter, with the aim of impressing those who look for the bright side in the pictures of the country of destination. They also advertise for job opportunities for the smugglers, while exchanging their phone numbers. This was stated in a recent study by the National Center for Social & Criminological Research on the illegal immigration of young people in the Egyptian society, through application on the governorates that export the highest numbers of immigrants. These provinces are Sharqia, Dakahlia, Qalyubia, Monufia, Gharbia, Beheira, and Kafr El-Sheikh (Delta region), as well as Faiyum, Assiut, and Luxor (Upper Egypt).

Parallel Paths

To conclude, the previously mentioned transformations point out to the growing role of illegal smuggling networks on the borderlines of the region’s states and other areas in Africa and Europe. They require confrontation through security forces, the coast guards, social affairs officials, local administrations, and non-governmental organizations on parallel lines, by toughening penalties on smugglers rather than on the illegal immigrants, raising the level of supervision on the areas with the highest rates of infiltration in the state, specifically on the border crossings. This would be done through security patrols, warships, surveillance aircrafts, and anti-infiltration forces, as well as dismantling the alliances between the terrorist groups and the criminal gangs through developing the areas which are beyond their control, and, finally, conducting comprehensive studies on the migration repellent areas and implementing small and infinitesimal projects to employ young people.