(CN) – At least one international human-smuggling network is operated by “independent players,” according to a new study that examines the illegal transportation of people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe.
The report, published Sunday in the journal European Journal of Criminology, dispels the perception that international, mafia-like organizations control such smuggling operations.
Instead, these networks appear to be highly segmented at each stage with a competitive landscape of “independent and autonomous” smugglers, militias and kidnappers with whom migrants must negotiate to complete their journey.
The study uses evidence from an 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors following the 2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck, which killed 366 people. The evidence includes data from interviews with police task force members, recorded telephone conversations between smugglers at each stage, migrant testimonies, and background information on offenders.
“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organization running through it,” said report author Paolo Campana, a lecturer in criminology and complex networks at Cambridge University in Britain.
“This is a far cry from how mafia-like organizations operate, and a major departure from media reports claiming that shadowy kingpins monopolize certain routes.”
Campana notes the anti-Mafia unit with the Palermo Prosecutor’s Office found no evidence of any involvement by the Sicilian Mafia – including protection payments – even though Sicily is a key stage in the smuggling network.
Two indictments prepared by the unit, which total about 800 pages, provided a major portion of the material Campana used to code all possible data points including references to names, events, exchanges, locations and events.
In the end, 292 people were connected to the Lampedusa smuggling ring, 95 percent of which were male smugglers operating independently along the main route from the Horn of Africa to Nordic nations in Northern Europe via Libya and Italy.
The network also included Canada, Turkey, Germany, the United Kingdom, Dubai and Israel, and featured individuals who kidnap for ransom in the deserts of Libya and Tripoli militiamen who released migrants from detention centers in exchange for bribes.
“People specialize,” said Campana. “There was a clear separation between those providing smuggling services, those kidnapping for ransom, and those, like the militias, ‘governing’ spaces and supplying protection.”
Campana also detected signs of a basic hierarchy of “organizers” and “aides” among smugglers in certain stages of the network.
“Organizers are individuals who give orders but don’t receive them, while aides are highly dependent on organizers for their activities,” he said. “Organizers make up some 15 percent of the smuggling network and the remaining 85 percent occupy a lower ranking aide position.
The researcher’s network models suggest actors who operate within the same stage of a journey are nearly seven times more likely to have some connection.
“Even in a network that traverses the hemispheres, it is the local dimension that is still crucial,” Campana said.
He also found that actors of the same network position – either organizer or aide – are three times less likely to be linked to each other.
“There is little contact between fellow organizers, reinforcing the impression of smugglers as free-trading independents. Business opportunities tear coordination apart,” said Campana.
A focused analysis of a sub-network of 28 smugglers found Italy-based actors who tapped directly into the Libyan “marketplace” had limited contact with one another.
Wiretaps and testimony suggest migrants must pay separate individuals for each stage of the trek. Payment was often sent in advance through hawala, an informal, trust-based system for transferring money that is traditionally used in the Muslim world.
One wiretap showed a fee of $3,600 for a couple to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Another wiretapped smuggler charged about $180 per person for a car ride from Sicily to Rome.
“Reputation is crucial in a competitive market, and the wiretaps show how much value smugglers place on their reputation,” Campana said.
One smuggler was recorded dressing down another for having too many migrants on a boat, comparing it to how a dirty bathroom reflects poorly on inhabitants of a house.
The wiretaps also revealed the Lampedusa shipwreck and deaths resulting from it led to smugglers compensating affected families in order to avoid losing future business.
“Authorities may wish to deliberately tarnish the reputation of smugglers in order to shut down their business,” Campana suggested.
In addition to damaging the credibility of smugglers, Campana says a coordinated effort between nations within smuggling routes and intranational policy shifts are critical to disrupting the network.
“Land-based policies such as refugee resettlement schemes are politically difficult, but might ultimately prove more fruitful in stemming the smuggling tide than naval operations,” he said.
“This is a market driven by exponential demand, and it is that demand which should be targeted.”