A New Form of Organised Crime: People Smuggling Across the Mediterranean

Over the New Year, two boats were intercepted by authorities, carrying migrants that have paid criminal groups to transport them to Europe through illegal means. The practice highlights the adaptability of organised crime groups, but also their increasingly businesslike nature.

Organised crime is continually adapting to changes in the global economy, capitalising on new opportunities and remaining two steps ahead of law enforcement. Better framed as illicit entrepreneurship, criminal networks have become increasingly businesslike, engaging in the trade of all kinds of goods and services through clandestine means.

Conflict provides many opportunities for criminal groups. The ongoing unrest in Syria has offered an environment where food, oil, weapons and even narcotics are being traded on the black market. The conflict has also fuelled another opportunity: thousands of people displaced by the violence are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the chance of a better life in Europe.

Over the New Year, two ships were intercepted en route from Turkey to Italy. The Blue Sky M, with nearly 1000 passengers aboard was intercepted on 31 December in Greek waters, and the Ezadeen, with over 350 passengers on board, was brought into an Italian port on 2 January 2015. Both of these vessels had been left without crew and were sailing on autopilot. On the Blue Sky M, one of the passengers, Rani Sark, was reportedly promised a payment of $10,000 to control the ship. People who are prepared to risk their lives to escape conflict are then left to face the consequences, while those facilitating the trade remain unidentified and continue to be able to fill boats with more willing passengers.

In line with the entrepreneurialism increasingly attributed to criminal groups, this phenomenon takes advantage of new European policies that ensure the safety of passengers after the boats are abandoned, which promotes ongoing business. The Italian government stepped up their patrols of the Mediterranean in October 2013 after two boats carrying migrants from Libya sank off the island of Lampedusa. Frontex, the EU’s border agency also launched a surveillance mission in the Mediterranean in October 2014 to control the area, monitor the border and carry out search and rescue. These operations ensured that passengers were not left to drown. But they also resulted in the prosecution of many people smugglers, requiring a new strategy from criminal groups. By leaving the boats without crew, criminal groups evade law enforcement and can continue their activities.

People smuggling utilises many existing skills of criminal groups. The boats have all been flying flags of countries with inadequate regulations for shipping companies, or that lack the capacity to monitor vessels, such as Sierra Leone, Moldova and Tonga. This allows criminal groups to use boats that are discarded by shipping companies and sold off cheaply for scrap metal. It also makes it difficult to track the owners of the ships. These tactics are used in other forms of illicit trade such as drug trafficking and illegal fishing.

While less violent than human trafficking as passengers are not coerced into travelling, this new form of people smuggling represents the latest in low risk, high profit activity that attracts organised crime networks. A form of illicit entrepreneurship, it fits with a new trend of criminal groups avoiding violence so as not to draw attention to their activities. They also provide good conditions for passengers, with reports of mattresses and other comforts on board, thereby maintaining a positive reputation and ensuring future business. Criminal groups have also managed to distance themselves from the activity, making it difficult to disrupt.

The practice highlights how rapidly criminal groups adapt to changes in law enforcement and exploit new opportunities. As a result, people smuggling poses the first challenge to law enforcement from organised crime in 2015.



Dr Sasha Jesperson

Associate Fellow

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