Thursday, November 12, 2015

Human Smuggling As Profitable Business

"Behind the smugglers, there is a multi-billion-dollar business -- and that of course attracts the Mafia."
"It is obvious that the [African asylum seeker drug] dealers work with Mafia permission and give them a percentage of the business."
Maurizio Scalia, prosecutor, Palermo, Sicily

"The reason for the kidnappings [of minor-aged migrants] was to send a message to the families of the migrants who hadn't paid for the logistics provided by the Mafia. In the intercepted phone calls, we heard Fathy [Egyptian smuggler Mohamed Shalpy Garpua Fathy] calling the families of the kidnapped migrants so they could hear the children scream."
"We think his [Mohamed Badawi Hassan Arfa] collaborators killed him because he wasn't giving them enough of the profits."
Carlo Parini, chief of Siracusa immigration police squad
A fishing boat with illegal immigrants from Tunisia arrives on Lampedusa
Over 141,000 migrants have arrived on Italy's shores this year. Antonio Parinello, Reuters

Sicilian police are busy monitoring the activities of refugee smugglers. The connection has long been made by the police and prosecutors between the Mafioso and an Egyptian crime family, partners in an elaborate smuggling network, a network that used Milanese money-men and safe houses to store the migrants. An estimated five or six boatloads of haven-seekers were smuggled into Italy before the police succeeded in shutting them down, and are now awaiting the appearance of enterprising replacements.

For there is a massive amount of profit to be made from the smuggling of human beings willing to pay for the privilege of being packed onto unseaworthy vessels, and to hazard an uncertain fate for the prospect of finding new opportunities in Europe, in their haste to leave their Middle East, African and Asian homelands. The Cosa Nosta and perhaps other Italian Mafia have discovered a far more profitable area of business than dealing drugs, it would appear.

Boats owned by the family of Salvatore Greco, an elite member of the Brunetto Mafia clan in eastern Sicily were being used to ferry well-paying migrants into Europe in an elaborate network whose profits soared as the number of refugees and migrants have accelerated in recent years. Three investigations are undergoing in Sicily into Mafia control of companies providing food, clothing, medicine and allied vital services to refugee camps.

As well, according to prosecutors, the Mafia is certain to be behind the provision of logistical support to migrants; the housing they require on arrival in Italy, and the arrangements for transportation to northern Europe. In 2014, 170,000 migrants hazarded the sea voyage to touch terra firma in Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. And in 2015 that figure has reached 141,000.

Migrants often pay $3,000 to $6,000 to be smuggled from North Africa to Italy, according to Paolo Giordano, chief prosecutor in Siracusa. Doing the math, a single boatload of a hundred migrants is capable of generating $300,000, most of it pure profit, the money paid up front. The welfare of the migrants is of little concern to the smugglers once their money is in hand. If the unseaworthy vessels sink, it is none of their concern.

Asylum seekers wait at the hotel Villa Mokarta, temporarily transformed in a center for immigrants, on Oct. 21 in Salemi, near Trapani in Sicily. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

More money is made once the migrants land in Italy as many asylum seekers attempt to avoid official refugee camps, prepared to pay for housing and transportation to northern Europe. Although there is no hard data on how much the Mafia could be making by this type of exploitation, it is assumed profits run in the billions. Last year, a convicted murderer, Salvatore Buzzi, involved in a huge Rome corruption case, spoke of those profits: "Do you know how much we earn off migrants? Drugs are less profitable."

In 2010, before the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, a migrant who arrived in Siracusa informed the Sicilian police that Salvatore Greco of the Brunetto Mafia clan had a "pact" arranged with Egyptian smugglers. Police wiretaps resulted from this information and "Operation Greco" was born. It was leaned that Mr. Greco had contacted the Egyptian smuggler, Mohamed Shalpy Garpua Fathy who introduced him to the Egyptian Mohamed Badawi Hassan Arfa, a smuggling kingpin and his son Said.

They were busy organizing migrant boat journeys to Europe, an enterprise that hugely appealed to Mr. Greco who offered to provide the motorboats to take the migrants from the mother ship, then conceal them once ashore, and arrange their train tickets for onward passage. When all had been arranged, and the money changed hands the Egyptian fishing boat 25 metres in length, arrived off the eastern coast of Sicily with its 190 migrants and the 18 ship's crew were detained. A few days later Mr. Greco and his son Massimo were arrested.

A few months later Mr. Fathy kidnapped six migrant children from a camp in Sicily. He was arrested this year after a second mass kidnapping connected to the Mafia. The Egyptian smuggling kingpin was killed in Egypt and the Greco case is closed. But the Sicilian police and prosecutors are on the lookout for more recent collaborative incidents between the Mafia and Egyptian or Libyan smugglers.

Sicily has eight refugee centres with possible links to the Mafia; human misery is worth billions. Cara Mineo houses up to 4,000 asylum seekers, thought to be the largest refugee camp in Europe. The camps have a budget for each adult and double for a child, with the cost of the annual service contracts for Cara Mineo alone set at $140-million, where the prosecutors suspect that services are provided by Mafia-controlled companies.

A group of migrants is pictured in a boat in the Mediterranean, between Libya and Sicily, in August 2014. As thousands die making the perilous journey from Africa to Europe, fleeing violence and searching for work, organized crime is making a killing off the migrants.
Photo credit: Sarah Caron

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