The State of Human Trafficking in Europe

Othon Leon Analysis, Europe, Law & Institutions

Every day, major human smuggling rings across the countries of the European Union are tackled down by security forces of the involved states, however, the modus operandi of these groups make them hardly detectable, which makes them an increasingly difficult problem to solve and a significant threat to the security of the E.U. This is a multi-billion dollars business, making trading in people’s lives and desperation, one of the most lucrative ones on the planet and a very difficult one to eradicate.

In Brief

What happened? Far from ending, illegal immigration in the E.U. has created a lucrative business for professional smugglers who have found the right instruments to exploit desperate people who want to install themselves in more peaceful and prosperous countries, whatever the means.

Why does it matter? The burden that these migrants impose represents significant risks to the European Union members in terms of security, asylum policies and economics. The German case serves as an example of the Zeitgeist.

The Mechanics Behind 

Professional smugglers take advantage of all kinds of strategies to operate under the radar of the E.U.’s authorities; naturally, some of these practices are more effective than others; one which is particularly used consists in getting tourist visas for illegal immigrants to enter the pre-selected destinations. Some of these organizations are run by people who have been granted asylum from one of the E.U. members. Since these individuals have got the refugee status already, they know others who hold the same condition and who have relatives in their countries of origin and who want to join them. Once these relatives are inside an E.U. country, it is easy for them to request the refugee condition. Part of the offer of these clandestine groups consists of taking care of the new arrivals until they smuggle their families and request the protection status. These illegal practices, which have thrived in the last years, pose a major threat in terms of national security risk, asylum policies and economic implications for the states in question.

Finding the Right Segments of the Market

Most of these illegal migrants are from North African and Middle Eastern origin (Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, etc.), but many are already out of their countries of origin, living in places such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Lebanon. Smugglers arrange for a European country to send them invitations with the name of people willing to provide financial responsibility for them, then they take that document to a consulate and get the tourist’s visa, with which they can legally travel to a certain country and then move among the E.U. countries. For the same token, smugglers become international business travellers; they regularly visit the Middle East to profile and find the right customers to feed their operations from abroad. These traffickers make around €1000 per person[efn_note]People Smuggling, DW (2019)[/efn_note]

Germany, A Case Worth Noticing

Research carried out by the DW shows that many of the smuggled people end up in Germany. A recent study[efn_note]Germany: 38,000 illegal immigrants caught by Federal Police, DW (2019)[/efn_note] estimates that between January and November 2018, nearly 38,000 people entered illegally the country (however the number can be higher than that because it not considered the people already inside the country). Most of the migrants included in this number correspond to people who crossed through the Austrian border (because temporary reinforced checks were carried out there), then from the Czech Republic, Switzerland and France (this kind of accurate information might be soon jeopardized, since the European Court of Justice has recently ruled that Germany’s Schengen membership prohibits checks of passengers’ identity documents on trains, buses, etc. (a reminiscence of WWII); however, Germany’s Federal Administrative Court is in the process of reviewing that decision). This becomes of significance since the Rheinische Post reported that during 2018 around 14,000 persons entered Germany illegally by land (controls along Germany’s borders with other countries are less exhaustive since all of its neighbours are members of the 26-country visa-free Schengen zone).

The focus on Germany is important because it can be interpreted as an outcome of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial initiative to welcome into the country almost a million refugees back in 2015 and which inevitably sets a precedent. The after events of that decision raised a question all over Europe and the world: are these refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East still welcome in Germany?

To keep things in perspective, it is also important to consider that back in 2015 Germany’s Federal Police registered 217,000 people illegally entering Germany’s territory, then that number fell to 112,000 back in 2016 and then to around 50,000 in 2017[efn_note]Germany: 38,000 illegal immigrants caught by Federal Police, DW (2019)[/efn_note]

About the Author

Othon Leon

Othon A. Leon is the managing director and senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. A current student at the PhD program in Political Science at Concordia University, with three masters’ degrees from ITAM, Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal. He currently lectures in universities around the world. His fields of research include International Relations, Comparative Politics, and War Studies.

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