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Fighting Traffickers or Migrants?

Corina Tulbure analyses the business of trafficking migrants which has come as a response to the fortification of Europe and the infringement of their rights to political asylum and International protection supposedly guaranteed by EU regulations. 

The focus on fighting migrant traffickers reveals the lack of an asylum policy on an EU level and a policy of persecution against migrants.

“Behind you is death. In front of you, the sea: a new life or death. It is your choice”, said a Turkish trafficker to Basel. Basel, a Kurdish young man from Syria, had to decide whether to take the zodiac (a small and cheap plastic boat) or not. The trip costs 800 euros. Finally, he chose to enter Bulgaria hidden in a truck, paying 1500 euros. To be a trafficker or a guide (they call themselves like that) is to be a part of a business chain that starts in Syria, passes through Turkey, and continues through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, until it enters the Schenghen space. The traffickers have different nationalities, are organized into networks located in different cities and countries, and normally keep a close connection with the local authorities, as for example, the police officers. In the Harmanli refugee camp, in the south of Bulgaria, one can see traffickers drifting around and talking with refugees in front of police officers. During a conversation with traffickers at the Turkey-Bulgaria border, negotiating the price seems like a conversation with a normal travel agent. The whole route from Syria to Germany costs more than 10,000 euros; one can cross Turkey’s border with Bulgaria for 1,500 or 2,000 euros. There are also different prices depending on how they cross the border: by truck or by land, walking two hours, four hours or two days.

Most of the refugees in the Harmanli camp enter the EU this way by paying traffickers. They are nafrat, as they call themselves: “In many refugee camps, all the people have passed the border paying. It is the only way to reach Europe”, explains a trafficker to us at the Harmanli refugee camp. On their way here, many of the migrants have been victims of extortion or were threatened by traffickers. The latter frequently steal the migrants’ money especially during difficult passages through forests or by delivering them directly to the border police with whom traffickers divide the loot. This behaviour is very common; as a result, Turkey has seen the flourishing of a new type of business in which refugees spend thousands of euros in guarantee deposits. People leave their money and high-value belongings in deposit boxes and receive them once they arrive at their destination, typically Germany, for a fairly significant fee. Besides, most refugees usually travel carrying only a backpack.

Bulgaria/Turkey border
Bulgaria/Turkey border

What makes people embark on such suicidal crossings of the sea or land borders? Or paying EUR 10 000, when a flight from Turkey to Germany can costs under EUR 100? The business of trafficking migrants is just a response to the fortification of Europe and the infringement of their rights to political asylum and International protection supposedly guaranteed by EU regulations.

The relevant European Institution responsible for the fate of the refugees deceived or killed by traffickers hides behind hypocritical European policies regarding asylum for the refugees. Currently, in order to apply for asylum, a person must be physically present on European soil. It is no longer possible to ask for asylum in the European embassies in the countries bordering the zone of conflict. Spain was one of the last countries in the EU to remove this possibility in 2009.

In spite of the fact that deaths of the refugees were on the cover of many newspapers all over the summer, there is no legal or safe way to enter the EU or at least some humanitarian corridor; on the contrary, Hungary erected its fences and the countries belonging to the Schengen space, announced the closure of their borders. As a result, as of today at least, refugees can reach the European soil to seek for asylum and protection only by contacting the traffickers and risking their lives in the dangerous routes. If the EU States don’t change their asylum policies and don’t open legal ways to reach the EU, instead of sending the army at the borders (Hungary, Bulgaria), we will continue pushing people to the suicide routes and share the responsibility for their deaths, for we occupy the same side of the border and share the same nationality as the traffickers whom we blame.

Fighting against traffickers and developing the “illegal people” market

It is estimated that refugees have spent more than EUR 250 million in payments to the traffickers who have brought them to Europe during this year. According to data from The Migrant File, the EU has spent upwards of a billion euros in securing the borders with fences, mostly using public funds of the member states. Only the new fence that was recently erected in Hungary cost more than €100 million. This amount of money is transferred from the public sphere to the private companies hired to build these fences largely at the expense of budget items such as health or education in the same states. At the same time, the EU announced a 77-millio-euro increase in the budget devoted to fighting the traffickers of migrants, which would allow the additional surveillance devices, military aircraft and vessels including.

In addition, according to IOM data, more than 28 000 people have died in the last decade in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe and 30 000 people are at the risk of dying while crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. The majority of those who died in their attempt to reach Europe came from countries devastated by wars: Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria.

Refugees clamber through barbed wire as they cross from Serbia to Hungary (

With today’s asylum policies, the EU not only violates the right of asylum it has declared but also criminalizes the potential asylum seekers who move away to the European soil by proliferating concepts such as “illegal migrant” and “the fight against illegal immigration”. Thus, for example, the justification of the Bulgarian Defence Ministry to send the army to the border was “the struggle against illegal immigration.” The current struggle against the “illegal” immigration has essentially brought to an end any meaningful asylum policy. Hungary has recently passed a law to prosecute any Hungarian citizen who offers assistance to an immigrant without a residence permit in Hungary. With the fight against „illegal” immigration (including refugees), every person who helps immigrants transiting a country, even if the life of the immigrant is in danger, can be accused of being “a trafficker of migrants,” a proof of the criminal position of the current migration laws.

But the refusal of the EU to open a legal and safe entry into Europe produces not only a market for the traffickers. With the concept of “illegal migrant” a vast market of “illegality” is being opened (the anthropologist Ruben Anderson is speaking about the illegality industry), a market absolutely legal and funded with the taxes paid by the citizens of EU that whose successful transactions amount to jailing or deporting migrants. This market includes immigrant detention camps, police officers and judges that are working there. After crossing the Turkey-Bulgaria border, the refugees intercepted by the police arrive at a detention centre as such as the one in Elhovo (one of the more than 400 detention camp in all the EU, according to Migreurope). This camp is worse than most prisons: inside, they detain people considered „illegal” in EU, that is, lacking legal rights. Inside these camps there is no bill of detainees rights nor mechanisms to report should a person suffer violence or torture. As an opaque space, where human rights are ignored, the press is prohibited access and cannot document police abuses against immigrants. An important component of the “illegality market” are the express deportations. In the next months it is estimated that more than 400 000 people will be deported as “illegal migrants” without any explanation about how the law-enforcement agencies distinguished between a person who flees the violence of a war or the violence of the extreme poverty. During the deportation flights already done, there have been documented deaths of persons, forced sedations and extensive use of violence. In addition, these mass deportations mean another transfer of public money to private flight operators.

Without a change in migration policies, the combination of “refugees welcome” and the fight against traffickers of migrants is going to produce more violence directed against migrants and an increase of the revenue for traffickers, flight companies, and repressive budgets set aside for migrant detention camps. As this predicament affects all of Europe, not only its Eastern part, the question arises: why do European citizens permit these migrations policies? And the second: whom do they benefit?

maxresdefaultCorina Tulbure is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona. She writes for El Periódico de Catalunya, Público, Ara, Rebelión.





By Corina Tulbure

Corina Tulbure is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona. She writes for El Periódico de Catalunya, Público, Ara, Rebelión.