As migrants continue to die trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, Europe says it wants to stem the flow by targeting the people smugglers. Experts, however, say such action would be difficult because of the vast web of organized crime that controls the trafficking.
Silhouetted against the Mediterranean sunrise, smugglers herd dozens of migrants from across Africa and the Middle East onto inflatable boats on a deserted North African beach. Offshore, they are loaded like cargo onto a larger vessel which they hope – will take them to Europe.
In recent years, tens of thousands of migrants have died through drowning, starvation and dehydration. The boat journey is just one stage of a vast network of people trafficking that starts in the country of origin.
Andrea Di Nicola, professor of criminology at the University of Trento in Italy, traveled across Africa and the Middle East interviewing those involved in the smuggling network. VOA spoke to him at Milan station, a major hub for migrants.
“It’s like a ruthless travel agency. They work in networks, and they can ally among themselves. And even if we close the route from Libya, they will probably work from Tunisia or Algeria or again from Turkey. They are flexible and they change," said Di Nicola.
Europe has called for targeted action against the people smugglers. Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group says that would be difficult, but not impossible.
“The use of drones for example to target people involved in the smuggling business, let’s say. And on the other hand, Italy and other European countries have intelligence networks in Libya that they can rely on for this kind of information," said Fabiani.
The smugglers, however, are a part of international crime syndicates earning huge sums, says Di Nicola.
“The United Nations estimates up to $10 billion. One Pakistani guy in Italy was smuggling 700 migrants and asked each guy for 7,000 euros," he said.
Nearby, Mohammed scans the arrivals board in Milan station. He’s looking for his uncle, who fled the civil war in Syria and has come to Europe across the Mediterranean on a trafficker’s boat. Mohammed is struggling to track him down.
“He was living close to the Yarmouk refugee camp [in Damascus],” said Mohammed. “The situation there is well known - it's very difficult and dangerous. We got the news from Libya that he had departed and the boat had arrived in Europe.”
Despite the links to criminal gangs, it’s clear the smugglers are providing a way out for Syrians and others fleeing conflict. That’s why Europe must reform its migration policy, says Di Nicola.
“If you’re going to tighten ‘Fortress Europe,’ then probably they will increase prices; this is what these criminals told us. So in order to disorganize [disrupt] them, you need criminal law, you need investigation, but you also need prevention, reduction of opportunities and of course better policies for assisting victims," said Di Nicola.
Europe is determined to tackle the traffickers, but, as the death toll in the Mediterranean rises, there is a growing debate over whether the continent should open safer channels for legitimate refugees fleeing war.