Refugee crisis in the Mediterranean

New networks trafficking Syrians from Egypt to Europe

The UN Security Council is set to vote on the EU's proposal for military action against people smugglers in the Mediterranean. But who are these people smugglers? What form do their networks take? And are they really a security threat? By Lewis Sanders

The people-smuggling trade in Egypt has existed for years, mostly operating out of rural villages. But following the influx of Syrian refugees to Egypt, a new network has emerged, and it relies heavily on Syrians in Egypt to conduct its business.

Tom Rollins, a journalist working on refugee migration in the Mediterranean, says that while there is a hierarchy to the Syrian networks in Egypt, much of the trafficking works organically. He says that the networks are typically comprised of a kingpin and simsars, or brokers, who serve as middlemen between potential migrants and those who operate the boats.

"It's a local business," says Rollins of the Syrian network in Egypt. Brokers in the network based in urban areas – as opposed to traditional Egyptian networks – offer up to 10 Egyptian pounds (€1.15) to Syrian shopkeepers per referral, a former staff member at a refugee aid organisation in Egypt said on condition of anonymity. Smugglers then hand the refugees and economic migrants on to boat operators, mostly poor fishermen.

"The smuggler won't be in the boat. He will be in his office counting the money," the former staff member added, highlighting the hierarchy in monetary distribution among the network's players. The cost of securing passage on a ship is estimated at between $1,500 and $3,000, most of which lands in the pockets of the network kingpin, with smaller cuts going to the boat operators and simsars.

Refugees picked up by the German frigate "Hessen" off the coast of Lampedusa (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr/PAO/Mittelmeer)
Refugees picked up by the German frigate "Hessen" off the coast of Lampedusa. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, called on the international community to take urgent steps to end the Mediterranean crisis and dismantle the human smuggling rings that facilitate it. ''The EU is united and we will work, but we cannot work alone. We need to share and act together, as it's an EU responsibility and a global responsibility," said Mogherini

Increase in people smuggling

The people-smuggling trade in Egypt has picked up significantly due to the influx of Syrian refugees who cannot officially work in Egypt, which forces them to resort to the informal economy or to try to move on and seek a better life elsewhere. More than 130,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Egypt, a substantial increase from 13,000 in January 2013, according to figures provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is set to vote in favour of an EU proposal to use military action against people smugglers to address the migration crisis on the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has backed the proposal, but is concerned that military action against people smugglers "could further endanger migrant lives." IOM spokesperson Joel Millman says that the solution cannot be resolved by taking military action, although traffickers need to be targeted. "The top priority must be safeguarding migrants' lives," he said. "Destroying a raft or a boat is not a solution. A sunken boat can be replaced. A human life cannot."

However, the question over whether people smugglers should be targeted continues to be a security concern. "The fisherman who sells his boat is not the criminal; he may not even be there when the boat was deployed full of migrants. We are angry about the reckless tactics of the traffickers who overload those boats and make them unsafe," said Millman. "We don't know if the fishermen are doing this," he added. "If they are, they should be targeted. But mostly we hear of traffickers filling boats beyond their safe capacity."

Lewis Sanders

© Deutsche Welle 2015

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