Africa: On the Trail of Migrant Smugglers

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More abuse by smugglers

Routes from West and East Africa to Europe, and from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East, with their treacherous sea and desert crossings, have become even more dangerous in recent years.

Smugglers have increasingly taken to extorting more than the agreed upon sum from migrants, often by means of holding them captive along the way or even at their destination, and forcing them to phone relatives to ask for money under threat of torture. Reports of such abuses, which blur the line between smuggling and trafficking, have emerged from Sudan, Yemen, Egypt's Sinai desert and Libya.

"What's happening now is unprecedented," says Yitna Getachew, a regional thematic specialist with IOM's East and Southern Africa office in Pretoria, South Africa. "Up until recently, you didn't see abuse of migrants by smugglers. It's a business and they have reputations to think of."

Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) which published a report in June 2013 on migrant smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, speculated that the large numbers of migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia have pushed up demand for smugglers' services, and also the temptation to extort ever larger sums of money. "In the case of Ethiopians and Eritreans, the sums are so large it's become irresistible," he told IRIN.

Migrants who experience the highest levels of violence are those who travel "without smuggling references", Sanchez says. "Most people travel with smugglers who are known to them and recommended by others."

However, on the long "pay-as-you-go" routes, such as the one from Eritrea to Israel or from Somalia to South Africa, migrants generally only know the smugglers who take them on the first leg of their journey.

Thereafter, they may travel alone for part of the way or be passed from one smuggler to another through what Horwood describes as "informal chains" or "loose alliances" that differ from the more organized networks typical of human trafficking.

Obstacles to prosecution

The extent to which abuse by smugglers occurs, even on the most notoriously dangerous routes, is unclear. "Most stories you hear are the stories of the people who had a bad experience with a smuggler.

You don't tend to hear the stories of the people who didn't experience abuse," said Sanchez, who argued that the majority of migrants do not experience abuse at the hands of smugglers.

Those migrants who do experience abuse rarely report it, particularly if they have reached their destination and are trying to steer clear of the authorities. The lack of formal complaints by migrants has added to the difficulties of prosecuting smugglers, who can be difficult even to identify.

"Unlike trafficking, smuggling isn't done by professionals, it's done by people who have other jobs. These aren't arch-criminals, but people who are making money on the side," said Khalid Koser, deputy director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, who has done extensive research on migrant smuggling.

"There's no profile for a smuggler," agreed Sanchez. "The smugglers I interviewed in Arizona [near the US border with Mexico] were teenagers who guided people through the desert ... you have a single mother of three who was housing people overnight and... grandmothers feeding people." Migrants may also assist by cooking at a safe house, steering a boat or driving a vehicle in return for a lower fee. This sometimes results in their arrest for smuggling.

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