Migrant Smuggling Activities Continued Despite Pandemic: European Migrant Smuggling Centre Report

May 18, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

The Covid-19 pandemic has, undoubtedly, disrupted everyone’s lives across the world. Yet, most of us have managed to find a semblance of normal and continue to follow our routines. So, it would be folly to assume that criminal networks have not managed to find their footing and resume their illegal activities, too. And that’s exactly what the European Migrant Smuggling Centre Report highlights at the outset. The pandemic is an example that global crises do not significantly disrupt migration flows, the report says. After an initial slow down during the first lockdown in March-April 2020, migrant smuggling activities quickly resumed, it adds.

Despite unprecedented travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, criminal networks have continued to thrive, and have displayed a high degree of adaptability, according to the report, which was published by Europol on May 17. “Europol’s operational support and services have been increasingly requested, despite the challenges in providing on-the-spot support,” it said. Criminal networks boosted new routes as a result of the travel restrictions, like the revived Western African route, and adjusted their modi operandi to movement restrictions and enhanced border controls. Meanwhile, using websites to advertise the sexual services of victims to clients has become a fundamental feature of the human trafficking circuit, the report says.

The report goes on to highlight several aspects of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings (THB). In today’s piece, we focus on a few of those aspects: Threats to the EU from migrant smuggling, THB in the post-pandemic era, and other trends in modi operandi.

Various Facets Of Migrant Smuggling

There are several aspects of migrant smuggling that poses a threat to the EU, according to the report. Those include:

  • Facilitation of secondary movements of irregular migrants already present in the EU: This is diverse, sometimes multidirectional, and there are significant differences across nationalities, the report says. Smuggling networks exploit routes departing from the first entry points in the EU (i.e. Spain, Italy, Greece) to destination countries like France, Germany, the UK, and others. They facilitate secondary movements by land, on foot or by vehicles, and by boats and planes. They can easily stay under the radar, thanks to the EU’s efficient transport infrastructure and the use by these criminal groups of simple, but effective, measures like built-in hiding places, rental cars, forerunners etc.
  • Legalization of their residence status: The facilitation of illegal immigrants takes place in an increasingly networked environment, the report says. Document fraud and legislation expertise is often provided as a service. Add to this legal business structures, corruption, and money laundering, and you get the picture of the criminal infrastructure that’s built to support smuggling operations.
  • Abuse of procedures: Criminal networks often systematically capitalize on and abuse asylum procedures and loopholes in legislation applicable to entry to, and legalization of, stay in the EU.
  • Digital aids: Digital solutions, encryption and opportunities offered by the online environment act as strong enablers of migrant smuggling, used in all stages of criminal operations, from advertising and recruiting of irregular migrants, to guidance and sharing of forged documents and instructions.

The threats to the EU aside, migrant smugglers treat irregular migrants as commodities. They often prioritize the aim of maximizing profits over the risks to the migrants’ physical and psychological health. They also frequently employ direct violence or the threat of violence against migrants, against law enforcement officers when avoiding apprehension and occasionally against other smugglers active in the same area. Furthermore, smugglers increasingly put the lives of migrants at risk. They use unseaworthy vessels or make them hide in small confined spaces for prolonged periods.

THB In The Covid-19 Pandemic Era

THB is considered a core activity of serious and organized crime in the EU and is set to remain a threat to it in the near future, the report says. Victims of THB are exploited by criminal networks originating all over the world. These days, the process features several online components, including those on the dark web, that the report says is set to become more pronounced in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the digital gaining momentum. Traffickers use online platforms and services to identify victims, orchestrate THB for sexual exploitation and advertise the services of victims. One of the most frequently reported modus operandi for the recruitment of victims for sexual exploitation remained the lover-boy method, the report says, with offenders reverting increasingly to psychological pressure to the detriment of direct physical abuse.

Traffickers are increasingly trying to exploit their victims through, supposedly, voluntary business agreements. As part of these deals, the victims agree to engage in prostitution and hand over a share of their earnings in exchange for help with administrative issues. Trafficking for labor exploitation, meanwhile, continues to take place mostly in cash-intensive, and less controlled, businesses like agriculture and construction. But even legal organizations are used to organize the exploitation of THB victims.

Modi Operandi Trends In 2020

Smuggling of irregular migrants concealed in vehicles is the most common practice for the facilitation of illegal immigration in the Western Balkans and neighboring countries, the report says. This modus operandi was on an upward trend in 2020, with the number of such cases reported in the fourth quarter increasing three-fold compared with the same period in 2019. Overall, the number of such cases doubled in 2020 compared with 2019 and the number of facilitated irregular migrants tripled, the report adds.

Smugglers are reported to employ risky behavior by trying to hide the maximum possible migrants inside a vehicle to increase their profits. The migrants are often transported in locked, dark, airless cargo compartments, in crowded, inhuman conditions that are not suitable for passenger transport. They’re also usually transported for several hours without stopping, to avoid apprehension. The top five nationalities of those apprehended in the last quarter of 2020 were Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Turkish and Croatian nationals.

There was also a significant upward trend in the usage of small boats in 2020 for illegal immigration from mainland Europe across the English Channel to the UK. The trend has been noticed since November 2019 and consolidated through out 2020, suggesting that it has become the main modus operandi of migrant smuggling networks who operate the EU-UK route. From January to mid-December 2020, law enforcement authorities of the countries in question registered more than 1,300 incidents involving more than 15,000 irregular migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

In 2020, more than 23,000 new arrivals of irregular migrants were registered to the Canary Islands, almost a 10-fold increase compared to the same period in 2019. The peak was recorded during October and November 2020, with 8,506 and 9,662 new arrivals, respectively. Migrant smugglers played a significant role in this long and risky crossing from the region, to the Canary Islands, by organizing sea crossings in fishing boats (called cayucos) and creating new synergies and opportunities such as the trade of cayucos to Senegal produced in Gambia at lower manufacturing prices.

On using digital tools, the report says: “Social media platforms and messaging communications (often encrypted) are widely used by smugglers to coordinate and communicate before and during smuggling operations. Such channels are also used to advertise services and fraudulent documents. The use of mobile applications has been detected to share maps with pre-established routes and safer transit points along borders, with live sharing of secure places to obtain logistic support during the journey (accommodation, water, food). Closed groups in social media and communication applications are particularly popular among document forgers and suppliers. In addition, burner smartphone applications are used by smugglers, enabling the random creation and use of temporary virtual phone numbers.”

Fraudulent documents are multi-purpose criminal tools, the report says, and each document can be used repeatedly to support different criminal activities. Identity documents are the most commonly traded type of fraudulent document: 35% of the documents reported to Europol were identity cards, followed by passports (31%), driving licenses (15%) and residence permits (7%). Most reported misused identity cards were of Romanian, Greek and Italian origin and the most misused reported passports were Italian, Greek and Israeli. Most documents are counterfeit or forged, while misused genuine documents have been reported with a smaller incidence.

Different EU countries have reported cases of exploitation of pregnant women and the subsequent sale of newborn babies. The modus operandi in general involves the recruitment of women to act as surrogate mothers, sometimes via the internet. The women are then medically treated for increased fertility and receive in-vitro fertilization in specialized clinics. Towards the end of the pregnancy, they are brought into the EU or to another EU country for childbirth and registration of the child. The children are then either sold with fraudulent documentation for illegal adoption, or the fatherhood is claimed fraudulently at registration of the newborns, and the supposed fathers take the newborns with them to yet another country.

The comprehensive 30-page report has a whole lot more in it, and we’d urge you to read it for more information.