What routes are taken by people trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe? Who do they turn to? What role is played by governments and authorities in transit and destination countries? We asked Luigi Achilli, an expert in migration and transnational crime

Last update: 2023-08-02 12:44:05

Since the start of 2023, the numbers of migrants heading for Europe have increased, along with the risk of shipwrecks. Like the one that took place in Cutro in February, in which more than 90 people lost their lives, or the shipwreck off the Peloponnese coast, which caused 80 deaths. Migration nevertheless remains a much-debated but little understood topic. We tried to shed some light on it with Luigi Achilli, an expert in irregular migration, smuggling networks and transnational crime, and researcher at the European University Institute in Florence and the Christian Michaelson Institute in Bergen, Norway.



Chiara Pellegrino interviews Luigi Achilli



Can you give us an overview of the routes taken by migrants in the Mediterranean?


There are three routes in the Mediterranean. The eastern route goes from Turkey to Greece and historically is the one taken by Asian and Middle Eastern migrants, but it’s also used by Africans, especially those coming from the Horn of Africa and Sudan. Then there’s the central route, which starts in North African countries, especially Libya, and leads to Malta or Italy. It’s the route with the largest number of victims and therefore also the best known internationally. It’s mainly used by migrants from North Africa, the Horn of Africa and West Africa, but also by some Asian migrants, including from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have had to find an alternative route to the eastern one, which was partially closed as a result of the agreement between Europe and Turkey. Lastly, there’s the western route, which starts in West Africa, in Senegal or Morocco, and goes to Spain. However, as checks have been stepped up and the geopolitical situation has evolved, these routes are no longer so well defined. Many people start on the central route and instead of getting to Italy they land in Greece. The migrants who drowned off the Greek coast on 14 June had set off from Libya. Think about the Cutro tragedy: those migrants had started on the eastern route. The routes change according to the ability of humans to adapt, to cross borders.


There’s been a lot of talk about smugglers lately. Who are they? How do they operate? What relationships do they have with the governments of the countries of departure?


Smugglers are not what they are made out to be by the media or by policy makers. They are completely different. First of all, there is not always a clear distinction between smugglers and migrants. Many smugglers were previously migrants. There’s something that needs to be clarified, before we talk about smugglers. The journeys today’s migrants are undertaking are much more like the journeys our great-grandparents or our great-great-grandparents made than the ones we make. For us, a journey is going from point A to point B, but that’s not the case for them. Their journeys are long, never-ending; they can last months or years. The idea that you start at A and get to B is non-existent, because anything can happen along the way. You work, you get married, you go to jail, you change your mind. What was ideally your final destination can become a place of transit, and what you considered a country of transit can become the final destination. The stricter the border controls, the harder it is to move. Moreover, on their journeys, migrants can run out of money and it can happen that, in order to survive, they come into contact with criminal networks or they themselves create one so they can pay for the smugglers’ services, make some money for themselves, or both. After months or years travelling, migrants know the route, they know the local people in the countries they are passing through, they’ve gained some expertise that enables them to start smuggling people. What’s more, they have ties to their countries of origin, where they themselves have come from. So then they come into contact with existing networks or create new ones. Thus, they go from being migrants to becoming smugglers for a time. 


Can you give us a few examples?


I could give you countless examples. Almost all the smugglers I know followed this trajectory: they were migrants, they became smugglers and then some of them went back to being migrants. A few years ago, the public prosecutor in Palermo arrested a smuggler in Sudan. He was an Eritrean called Mered. He had been nicknamed “the Captain”, the “Al Capone of the desert”, “the Scarlet Pimpernel” of smugglers. Then it was discovered that they had arrested the wrong person. The Mered that had been arrested milked cows, he didn’t smuggle people, but they only noticed after he’d already served three years in prison in Italy. The incredible thing is that many of his friends envied him, because at least he’d managed to get to Italy, whereas they hadn’t. The prosecutor arrested him thinking he was a smuggler; in fact he was a migrant who was living in Sudan because he hadn’t made it. Interestingly some journalists managed to contact the real Mered, the real Captain. And they discovered he wasn’t the great smuggler he’d been made out to be. He was a migrant who, at some point, had started to do this as a job, and hadn’t amassed this great fortune, by the way. Basically, he worked for some Libyans, who most likely colluded with the coastal authorities because smuggling often involves varying degrees of active connivance on the part of the authorities. At some point Mered wanted to go back to being a migrant, but the Libyans wouldn’t allow him to because he was a source of income for them. Mered was Eritrean and many of their customers were Eritrean, so losing him would have been a big blow to the Libyan authorities, especially financially.


I imagine that collusion between smugglers and authorities is something that all transit states have in common.


Yes, that’s right. A few years ago, I did some research on Kurdish smugglers in Greece. They also operated thanks to the connivance of the police. The police would occasionally try to arrest them and stop the migrants, but they would often turn a blind eye, because the smugglers were doing a service. They gathered all the migrants in one place and didn’t let them go anywhere, which prevented them from causing a disturbance and shocking public opinion. In practice, they acted as sheriffs, preventing the mass of migrants from wandering around aimlessly. They also sorted them, which they couldn’t do themselves because Greece had signed the Dublin Convention.


Smugglers are often believed to make a lot of money. Do they?


Among smugglers there are people who are true criminals, who are unscrupulous, and others who, generally speaking, are not bad people. Many of the ones I have met were in the second category. And now I come to your question. There’s a lot of money in the migrant smuggling business. Migrants often have to sell their homes and all their belongings to be able to leave. For example, Syrians sold everything so they could pay the smugglers. That leads to the idea that the smugglers must be billionaires. It’s not like that. Lots of money exchanges hands, but it’s a business that needs lots of middlemen, people not necessarily doing anything illegal. But you shouldn’t think of it as a closed network, like the mafia.


Do you have any particular case in mind?


When I carried out fieldwork in Turkey, I was in a small town near Bodrum. It was one of those small towns that empty out in the winter because the tourist season is over and nobody goes there. At one point, the entire town came back to life, thanks to irregular migration. Taxi drivers made money transporting smugglers and migrants to the boarding point, hotels supplied tourist packages to migrants, shops swapped the summer clothes in their windows with life jackets. The smugglers also subcontracted many activities to the locals—they rented the farmer’s field so they could put migrants there, or they paid the owners of the houses near the shore to put their inflatable boats there. I was doing an interview with a smuggler in a fast food restaurant one day, when the owner, thinking I was also a smuggler, asked me in English if I was interested in renting his cousin’s boat for work. So the entire community lives off it. The authorities probably get the biggest share.


How did the business change after the 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey?


After the deal, the authorities began to ask for much more money to let people leave. It became a riskier service and therefore more expensive. The increase in costs is one of the reasons why there are fewer departures on that route.


In practice, the authorities get money twice: from Europe to stop the departures, and from the smugglers, who are bribing them so they can leave.


Exactly. You can’t generalise, but that’s often what happens. It should also be said that the agreements did work in some cases. In Libya, for example. The deals Berlusconi made with Gaddafi worked very well, if by work you mean stopping the departure of migrants, because, at the time, power in the country was centralised. If anything, the issue was what conditions were migrants being blocked in. The 2017 agreements with the Italian Interior Minister also worked. Minniti made deals with the head of the Coast Guard al-Bija—a people smuggler, as reported by the journalist Nancy Porsia. To be more precise, al-Bija did not smuggle people himself, rather he charged smugglers a fee. So, he was actually a crucial link in the smuggling of migrants. And despite this, he was invited to a high-level meeting at the Cara di Mineo camp in Sicily, which was also attended by several representatives of the United Nations. Those at high levels who run the smuggling business—authorities, militias, the coastguard—realised that it was much better to get money from Europe than from the migrants. It changed from being an immigration-based business into a detention-based business. So the Libyans set up detention camps—obviously that wasn’t what they called them—where migrants were being locked up and subjected to the worst kinds of abuse. What’s interesting is that the authorities still managed to extort money from migrants, who paid to be released or, in some cases, to have permission to leave. But Europe wasn’t interested in that. These dynamics have often been reported by investigative journalists, but there are no academic studies of the role played by crime in the governance of migration.


Do you know how much migrants pay to try to get to Europe?


It’s very hard to know precisely. Prices differ a lot depending on the country they are leaving from, the migrants’ relationships with the smugglers, the time of year, who the authorities are at that time... That said, we’re talking from 3 or 4,000 dollars to 10, 12, 15,000 dollars. When I was doing research in Turkey in 2015 and 2016, migrants were paying 1,000 to 1,500 dollars to cross from Turkey to Greece. But the type of migration has changed in recent years and this also affects prices. With the closure of the borders, to reduce the risk of being arrested, smugglers began subcontracting the crossings to migrants, who pilot the boats themselves. These are migrants who don’t have the money to pay for their passage and accept the assignment without really knowing the risks they are running. If they get arrested, they end up filling the prisons in Sicily.


According to estimates, the number of child migrants received in Italy has increased a lot in recent years. Your research has looked extensively at this phenomenon. Can you describe it? Who are these young people? What’s their relationship with the smugglers?


Minors represent vulnerability. However, it should also be said that migrants in general, but especially children, often have a better relationship with smugglers than they do with the authorities. So much so that, among Arabic-speaking migrants, many smugglers are even addressed by the honorific hajji, which is reserved for those who have fulfilled the obligation of making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Moreover, smugglers have excellent negotiation skills. I began looking at child migration because I wanted to see what role minors play, especially the unaccompanied ones, in the dynamics between migrants and smugglers. I found that the more vulnerability there was, the more extreme these dynamics were; meanwhile the ability to negotiate is also linked to the ability to exploit. The fact that children turn to irregular channels to cover some parts of their journeys to Europe is surprising, if we consider that the countries they are going through have all signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which protects their rights. So why do minors turn to smuggling networks? For two reasons. The first concerns the criminalisation of children. Children often end up being targeted by the authorities because they are considered more likely to be prey to terrorist groups, who could brainwash them and exploit them for their own purposes. They are seen as a weapon and hence are more likely to be placed in detention centres. This is particularly true in the countries bordering Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but also in so-called democratic and liberal states like Greece. The second reason concerns, paradoxically, their protection. The international legal system created specifically to protect children can itself end up overlooking their basic interests. According to numerous studies, the CRC universalises a western idea of childhood, which erodes individual autonomy and promotes professional intervention. This has become evident, for example, with the overwhelming tendency of authorities and the international community to approve the use of protective custody. This approach has often led to a breakdown in the social relations of children and has increased social isolation for them. This means that, if they can, many children run away, or they avoid approaching the authorities and humanitarian organisations. In a sense, they feel they have more freedom with the smugglers. They might run more risks, although I’m not so sure about that, because awful things happen in the detention centres, but more than anything else they have more opportunities to be proactive and to decide where to go.


I once found a Syrian boy aged about 16 in an abandoned house. He told me he had run away from a centre for children, where he had been put with a group of Afghans. Syrians and Afghans couldn’t stand each other, so you can just imagine among teenagers. He told me he felt isolated, so he ran away from the centre and turned to the smugglers. Running away is very common. In 2016, over 20% of unaccompanied children in Greece disappeared within 24 hours of being placed in special reception facilities for minors. The media blamed the smugglers, saying they kidnapped them, exploited them for prostitution or tricked them into running away. Then it was discovered that most of these kids were running away of their own accord and found the smugglers to be far better intermediaries, partly because they could provide them protection.


So there’s a slightly different rationale involved in smuggling children as compared to smuggling adults. For example, how much do families pay to hand children over to smugglers?


The rationale is similar as when it comes to smuggling adults: same routes, same methods. The difference when children are involved is related to certain aspects of smuggling. For example, the commingling of protection and exploitation is more evident. Smugglers ask to be paid much more when they’re taking on children, because they have more responsibility. In fact, some smugglers don’t want children because they slow the journey down or because they don’t want the responsibility. I can give you a dramatic example I saw for myself, which gives you a good idea of how complicated child smuggling is, because it involves the will of the migrant, exploitation, danger and the protective role of the smuggler. I was in Turkey with a group of smugglers who operated in the mountains. The smugglers had made deals with the police and basically handled all migrants. We’re speaking of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people in the busiest periods. The smugglers hid migrants inside lorries, which were then taken to Bari by ferry. There were Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis. There were two unaccompanied children in the group of Afghans. They were two brothers aged 12 and 16, entrusted to the head of the smugglers, who we’ll call Abdallah, not his real name. Abdallah took care of these two children. There were other people under him, other young smugglers. One day, we were sitting at a bar when the police arrived and arrested Abdallah on charges of child rape. The 12-year-old boy had been raped by a kid who worked under Abdallah. The other smugglers stopped the kid who committed the rape, beat him up and sent him home. They did this because they knew the Afghan migrants would have killed him, if they’d left him there. But this meant the Afghans were unable to settle the score, so they convinced the boy to tell the police that he’d been raped by Abdallah, who should have kept him safe. Abdallah did four years in prison – he paid the price for not managing to keep the boy safe – and then he was later exonerated by DNA testing.


Smuggling and trafficking: the two terms are often confused. Can you explain the difference?


There’s a good deal of confusion around these two terms in Italy. Migrant smugglers are known as scafisti, boatmen, even though they don’t necessarily pilot boats, because they often travel overland. In these cases, migrants buy a service, which is crossing a national border. A trafficker is someone who deals in prostitution, organs, forced labour. Here, the migrant isn’t buying a service, the migrant is the service. They are goods that are sold, bought or hired out for a certain amount of time. They are two different things. In some cases, trafficking doesn’t even involve crossing borders. For example, traffickers are the ones who take people and force them to work in tomato fields. People smuggling can sometimes turn into trafficking. This happens when migrants have no other chance of survival than to return to a situation where they are exploited. Many of the minors I have interviewed ended up working in farming areas of Lebanon, near the border with Syria, because it was the only way their parents could afford to get them out of the country. Girls aged 13 or 14 made to work 12 hours in exchange for a small fee. The alternative was being raped or killed in Syria.


Another example is the Nigerian women who come to work in our sex markets. Not all of them have been tricked. Many know before they leave what they’ll be doing once they get to Italy and some see it as an opportunity for emancipation. It sounds incredible, but that’s the way it is. A Nigerian woman who wants to leave her country has two ways of doing so: she can go to the people smugglers, but in that case she would have to cross the desert, risk her life in the Mediterranean and, in any case, she’d have to pay and often she doesn’t have the money. Then, when she gets to Italy, there’s still a risk she’ll have to be a prostitute. The alternative is to go to the traffickers, in which case she’s the commodity, so they are much more careful.


Something similar happens in the drug market on the border between Mexico and the United States. Many of the migrants haven’t been tricked by the narcos. For them, carrying drugs through the narcos’ tunnels is the only way to cross the border.


But I imagine there are differences between migration in the Mediterranean and the flows between Central America and the United States, in terms of the types or the profiles of migrants...


Actually the two types of migration are very similar. Both are cases of mixed migration, involving those we normally call asylum seekers, refugees, and so-called migrant workers. This distinction came about during the Second World War to distinguish displaced populations trying to flee the violence of war, like Jews, from other populations, who were migrating for purely economic reasons. However, in time, this distinction has become anachronistic. Things are much more complicated today. You can no longer differentiate precisely between economic migrants and political refugees, because the two things are often interconnected. For instance, is a Honduran fleeing violence in Honduras, from the pandillas (gangs), only running from violence or is he also emigrating for economic reasons? He’s doing it for both reasons. The same goes for those fleeing Syria. They were running from war, but they were also leaving for economic reasons. In fact, many young people who arrived in Europe had to provide for their families left behind in Syria. So the profile of migrants is very similar.


What’s different is the profile of the smugglers and the type of smuggling. Over here, we have the Mediterranean in the middle, so migrants are made to cross on inflatable boats or fishing boats, and the role of receiver is played by civil society, by humanitarian organisations or by the state. Generally, smugglers don’t accompany migrants. In America, smugglers and migrants have to cross a land border. If they are caught, they’re arrested immediately or sent back via a dreadful process. They spend days, sometimes weeks, in what they call hieleras, or iceboxes, which are extremely cold rooms where some people get sick and die of pneumonia, say. I have never understood why they do that. Or rather, unofficially it’s clear, it’s meant to be a deterrent; but they can’t say that officially. It’s the usual idea of deterrence: you get caught, you understand how bad it is and you don’t do it again. For example, one transgender migrant I travelled with during the migrant caravan died. She had AIDS, she caught pneumonia and died.


What’s different is also the modus operandi. Smugglers in Central America take migrants across the border, hence run considerable risks. Smugglers are familiar with the desert, they’re guides, and in fact they’re known as coyotes, desert wolves. But this is starting to change. As routes are very dangerous, coyotes are beginning to be replaced by a system of cyber coyotes. In practice, they give migrants a GPS and they guide them through the desert on their phones. I imagine cyber coyotes are cheaper. The chances of success on these routes are quite small, but not minute. The truth is that the more migrants pay, the greater the chances of success. In some cases it’s even possible to bribe the border authorities.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation