The economics of human smuggling makes it nearly impossible to stop

Italy is bearing the brunt of Europe’s migrant crisis.

In the year to July, 80% of the migrants coming to the EU first arrived in Italy. Italy’s call for help has yet to lead to concrete action from the European Union—the country was so frustrated it threatened to close its ports.

Italy’s attempts to stem the flow of migrants have largely been ineffective. In one particularly embarrassing case, Italy claimed to have arrested a so-called “kingpin” of the human smuggling industry. But an investigation by The Guardian and New Yorker suggest the wrong person was arrested. (Despite the compelling evidence for a case of mistaken identity, Italian authorities refuse to release the man, even though they have yet to find a witness to testify against him.)

Paolo Campana, an organized crime researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK, suggests looking for so-called kingpins is the wrong approach. That’s because the industry smuggling humans to Europe is a “quintessential free market,” he says. In such an open, unregulated market, there are no bosses or monopolies, he explains. Anyone is free to leave their job and enter the smuggling business, with no controls over territory.

In a follow-up paper expected to be released in September or October (the paper adds to research published earlier this year), Campana makes one of the first attempts to analyze and map out the criminal networks driving human smuggling, from East Africa, to Libya, and then Italy. Quartz reached out to Campana’s to discuss the biggest takeaways from his research and what could be done. The interview is edited and condensed for clarity.

Quartz: You describe human smuggling trade as a “quintessential free market.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

It’s a quintessential free market because there is no regulator. Everybody can enter this market. You don’t need high skills, you don’ t need high capital either. There are very low barriers to entry.

It also means there are no checks on the quality of the product that is sold.

Is human smuggling different from human trafficking?

There is a difference between migrant smuggling and human trafficking (or modern slavery). In the case of human trafficking, the commodity is the control over a person for the purpose of exploitation. In the case of human smuggling, the commodity is the illegal entry into one or more countries.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a transition from human smuggling to modern slavery. But the question we should ask ourselves is who is involved in the exploitation. If the smugglers based in Libya are directly involved in the exploitation of migrants in the destination country then it’s human trafficking.

Smugglers are in a different line of business—they are in the business of moving people.

What makes human smuggling different from other black markets?

When you look at the mafia and you look at protection rackets, you’re looking at instances of illegal governance. So you have alternative sources of authorities, people who decide who can do what in a given territory. They tend to be much more entrenched in the community and they are much more difficult to move.

The human smugglers don’t make any territorial claim; they just operate in a territory. In Libya, for instance, you might have a situation where the smuggler will have to pay a protection racket to the local militia in order to operate. So the governance element, which is what characterizes the mafia, is in the militia not the smugglers. The business of the militia and the business of the smugglers is, again, completely different.

Also, with protection rackets, the activities are highly internalized. There is a boss at the top that monitors all the action. This is not the case for human smuggling. With human smuggling, you have a number of largely independent actors. In the case of Libya, I observed very rudimental, highly localized hierarchies.

This certainly makes the work of law enforcement agencies more challenging in many ways. For example, the removal of a smuggler from the market might not result in any significant impact on the flows, as each smuggler only contributes to the overall flows to a limited extent. Also, since smugglers are independent of each other, the remaining smugglers will still be able to operate normally.

The local dimension also matters, as it means tackling the smugglers in countries like Libya, Sudan or Niger. This is something that Western law enforcement agencies find it very difficult to do, and it raises a number of difficult moral dilemmas around human rights.

There’s been a narrative in the media that so-called “masterminds” dominate human smuggling routes. Is that an inaccurate picture?

We see fragmentation in terms of the operational arrangements. People only have control over a certain stage of the journey. For instance, the Eritrean smuggler based in Tripoli will only organize the sea crossing. There would be another Eritrean smuggler based in Sicily, who is completely independent from the Eritrean smuggler based in Libya. They might cooperate on an ad-hoc basis. But at the same time, the Eritrean smuggler based in Sicily might work with three, four, or five different smugglers based in Tripoli. There is no exclusivity.

[For law enforcement] I believe that obtaining a good understanding of the mechanisms underpinning a phenomenon is crucial, particularly when we seek to develop policies and interventions that go beyond an emergency response.

How are you able to analyze this criminal network?

I use court data. It’s been a long and painstaking process. We look at wiretaps of phone calls, we look at testimonies of migrants, and everything the authorities were able to collect on both sides of the Mediterranean.

I then used statistical methods to try to understand what made people more likely to interact. It’s really time-consuming, but you get a really good grasp of the phenomenon. To my knowledge, it’s the first mapping exercise of a smuggling network.

In this way, I was able to empirically explore what makes two smugglers more likely to cooperate. To put it in other words, I’ve estimated the impact of a number of factors, including nationality, age, place of residence or role, in the formation of the smuggling network.

How can your research support law enforcement and NGOs working to help migrants?

The market is very competitive, so just targeting one smuggler wouldn’t make much of a difference. The other smugglers will jump on that opportunity and take his market share.

Some solutions are good in the short-term, such as the rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which is a generous and noble response to the emergency. But it’s probably now time to think of a longer-term solution. Disrupting criminal networks at sea is also not a long-term, sustainable solution.

It’s much better to offer alternatives. Land-based solutions are better than sea-based solutions, which are emergency measures. There are two possible broad sets of policies; one is a very restrictive policy where you close the borders before the sea crossing and monitor the coast. The other set of policy is humanitarian: setting up ways to relocate and allow legal movement into the European Union, without having to rely on the smugglers.

It’s a political decision to decide which solutions European countries want to adopt.

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