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Mediterranean Migration Crisis Represents Scope Of Smuggling Business


Despite this crisis, many are willing to risk the journey. The International Organization for Migration - the IOM - estimates that more than 21,000 migrants have made it to Europe since the beginning of the year. And that number may explain why migrants are willing to pay for such perilous passage and why smugglers are willing to sell to them. Leonard Doyle is spokesperson for the IOM, and I asked him who these migrants are.

LEONARD DOYLE: They are, you know, frankly, the United Colors of Benetton. Some of them are from Senegal, a relatively peaceful place. Some of them are from Gambia. The numbers are there. Others are people who've fled repression in Eritrea or families in desperate need fleeing Syria trying to get to a safer place, having spent maybe way too long in a refugee camp. So this is a full galaxy of people. Even Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, you name it.

SIEGEL: And they're converging on Libya because, Libya being lawless at this point, is the easiest place for smugglers to operate from?

DOYLE: Exactly. Because the government of Libya is so weak - there are, in fact, two governments - it's relatively easy for them to get across the border. The militias, in effect, control the borders. They bring them in and then they put them in safe houses. They put them to work. Maybe they have them in forced-labor for a while. On the other hand, many communities from Africa work perfectly happily in Libya and never take the boat. So it's a kind of completely mixed bag, which is why sometimes the prescriptions you hear, the one-size-fits-all prescriptions, are just not right.

SIEGEL: And is the fact that Malta and Italy figure so prominently as destinations here - is it just that those are the closest countries to the Libyan coast or are many of these people headed for Italy or Malta?

DOYLE: Really not headed for - certainly not for Malta and not for Italy, except that it's a very benign place to set foot in. The Italians, you know, they have a proper rule of law. And one of those rules is that you can't force somebody to be fingerprinted. The migrants know that. They, therefore, don't get on the books in Italy and they scoot right through the place into northern Europe, where they'll claim asylum.

SIEGEL: And who are the smugglers? How sophisticated are the smuggling rings that people are paying for passage?

DOYLE: These people are probably closely politically connected. That have high access into the political classes, certainly in Libya. The amounts of money that are passing hands are vast. You know, we hear reports that one over-packed shipping vessel could bring in revenue in the order of between 4 and 7 million dollars. It depends, obviously, on the size of the vessel and the numbers of people aboard.

SIEGEL: And how much do people pay to cross in one of these boats?

DOYLE: Well, it's typically around a thousand dollars. It's kind of - if you're unfortunate enough not to have that, you might end up paying $500 and ending up stuffed down in the hole by the engine of a rotten, old fishing boat. This happens a lot, and these people often die of asphyxiation.

SIEGEL: And, I mean, one of the boats that was reported on today was described as being only 30 yards from stem to stern. That's a fairly small vessel, and yet you would expect to find hundreds of people on such a boat?

DOYLE: Typically there would be up to 700 on an old fishing vessel that's long past its sell-by date or on a semi-rigid rubber raft that they brought in from Egypt. And you're not getting much customer service for your thousand dollars.

SIEGEL: Is there any crew on these vessels? That is, are there people who are the smuggler's guy who is directing the vessel toward Europe?

DOYLE: From what we were understanding last year, certainly from Libya - and it's different for every country - was that one of the passengers would get free passage in return for steering the vessel. Now, it's not necessarily like that at all times, but it seems that these smugglers disappear into the night and do not take part in the actual journey, which is probably why so many of the vessels found are so close to the Libyan shore.

SIEGEL: There's no indication that things in the Middle East are getting anymore safe for people who live there. To the contrary, war seems to be spreading. There's no indication that poverty is being greatly alleviated in sub-Saharan Africa. Would you just assume that, over the next several years, 180,000, 250,000 people will attempt or make the crossing predictably?

DOYLE: Well, unless some initiatives are taken, unless some moves are taken to do something about it - I mean, we've seen in these sorts of episodes that the international community can do great things. Look what happened over the Somali piracy episodes of a couple of years ago. This was an absolute scourge for any shipping going down the East Coast of Africa. The international community responded and stopped it by being forceful with the pirates. So we're not suggesting, necessarily, that that's the right approach for the Mediterranean, but we can see that the international community can deal with these things.

SIEGEL: Leonard Doyle, thank you very much for talking with us today.

DOYLE: You're very welcome. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Mr. Doyle is spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.