Human-Trafficking Organizations from Iraq to Syria and Libya

London – Years of war and instability in several Middle Eastern countries have provided fertile ground for human-traffickers, whose clients long to leave their homes after despairing from their destroyed infrastructure, lack of job opportunities and weak political institutions.

Despite the stricter security measures between the borders of war-torn countries in the Middle East and Europe and despite the hike in costs demanded by the traffickers, several Iraqis, Syrians and others still long to leave their homes. Over the years, the human-trafficking trade has become more professional whereby the money received from those longing to escape their countries ends up in the hands of dangerous organized crime gangs, reported the German press agency dpa.

Iraqi expert at the Crisis Management Initiative, Hussein al-Taee said that major criminal groups and terrorist organizations have trafficking abilities and money is being pumped into them.

A European center on combating organized crime highlighted the increasing role terrorist groups are playing in human-trafficking. They are involved in people, drugs and arms smuggling, which could lead to more organized operations in the future.

In Finland in 2016, eleven people were accused of being connected to a major human-trafficking gang. It secretly smuggled people from Iraq to Sweden. The gang was discovered after its leader, A.Sh., left Sweden to Finland to instruct his partners there on how to execute the crime. Officials believe that he controlled everything in his organization that extends to Iraq.

He was in charge of purchasing documents in Sweden, arranging transportation in Austria, recruiting suitable candidates in Mosul and finding places to stay throughout the route that extended from Iraq to northern Europe.

Wealthier Iraqis, may cross some legs of the trip by plane, but the others have made the voyage from Greece to Austria on foot after crossing the Mediterranean. This route passes through Hungary and Serbia before reaching Austria where some refugees continue to Germany, Denmark or Finland.

Even though the criminal investigation of the Finnish border police and their international partners has been limited to Austria, they are aware that the funds obtained from trafficking was transferred from Iraq to Jordan. The money is only provided to the organizations from the country of departure once the people reach their desired destination.

The Helsinki criminal court and court of appeals laid down punishments against the eleven suspects in A.Sh.’s trafficking ring. Officials believe that the gang smuggled around 100 people with the assistance of over 20 traffickers.

Frontex, the agency that manages European borders, reported that Iraqis make up the fourth largest group involved in illegal border crossings. The so-called Mediterranean route that passes through Turkey and Greece is their preferred passage. Some 28,000 Iraqis have been counted on this road in 2016 alone.

Al-Taee believes that the Turkish borders could once again be reopened for refugees, which would lead to a new wave of Iraqi asylum-seekers heading to Europe.

Al-Taee and the Crisis Management Initiative have therefore been focusing on bolstering a more stable policy in Iraq, stressing the need to strengthen government institutions until armed groups are weakened so that citizens will not feel the need to leave the country.

Syrian side

Syria is also witnessing a destructive war and families are paying huge sums of money to get help in crossing the border. Ali, a Syrian citizen, left his home in the northern city of Aleppo with eight members of his family with the hope to leave the war. After a 15-hour journey to the Turkish border, he met with a human smuggling group that demanded that each member pay 1,000 Syrian liras (4.2 euros). This was a few years ago and the numbers have now become astronomical.

Each member, whether male or female, young or old, must pay between 700 to 800 dollars to cross into Turkey. Young men traveling alone pay a lesser price of around 500 dollars. This is because families usually have children and more luggage, making their journey riskier. A solo male traveler has less of a burden and can make an escape if the need arises.

Costs may skyrocket to 20,000 euros (223,000 dollars) per person if they require forged documents and air travel, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Travel costs may also vary according to the distance crossed, route and need for another trafficker at the departure and destination countries. Nearly all refugees coming from the Middle East pass through Turkey. Iraqis face the most dangerous journey because they have to pass Syria to reach Turkey. The few of them who are able to get a plane ticket to Turkey, often face difficulties in obtaining a visa when they get there.

The IOM said that travelers from the city of Mosul and Anbar province who cross into Syria and then Turkey usually face the hardest route to get to their destination and may have to attempt it several times before succeeding.

Since ISIS seized control of the cities along the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2014, passage between the two sides is no longer difficult because the terrorist group considers the region to be part of one country. Smugglers however do still face some logistic challenges. ISIS has also arrested several traffickers, forcing them to come up with alternate routes to fool the militias.

The smugglers often ride on donkeys and pretend to be shepherds. Or they ride on fuel trucks, but there is a price to that. The refugees have to pay the truck drivers as if they were paying the smuggler. Each individual pays between 1,200 to 1,500 dollars to cross from Mosul and nearby cities to Turkey. Over 91,000 Iraqis reached Europe in 2015. Several of them said that they preferred to travel without their families to reduce the dangers and costs. They are banking on the European Union’s family reunification project to bring their loved ones together.

Libyan side

In 2016, more than 181,000 refugees made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean towards Italy. Libya is the main departure point for those being smuggled to Europe. The chaos that ensued in the country after 2011 attracted smugglers despite the mounting dangers.

Many refugees seek to depart from Egypt, but several Egyptians prefer to leave from Libya after Egyptian authorities intensified their monitoring of the northern coast.

Before 2014, the cost of travel from northern Africa to Italy was around 6,000 dollars and changed according to the nationality of the refugee. Once Syrian refugees started paying more than their African counterparts, the costs began to spike to reach an average of 20,000 dollars.

Even though the high prices ensure that the Syrians will have a spot on the boat and a lifejacket, they will still face a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. In 2016, 4,579 people died while making their way from Libya to Italy, compared to around 3,000 in 2015.

European agencies have helped Libyan officials in combating human-traffickers, but Amnesty International believes that European countries should provide safe and legal passage for refugees heading to the continent.

The rights group released in 2016 a report that shows the harrowing sexual violence, torture and religious oppression that the refugees have to endure on their way from Libya to Italy.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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