A new government in Italy was elected partly because of promises to do something about the people smuggling from North Africa used corrupt North African governments. Italian gangsters and EU (European Union) countries far from the Mediterranean back NGOs (non-government organizations) which operate boats to take the illegal migrants directly to European (mainly Italian) ports where the migrants are deposited and claim asylum. According to EU rules that means they can stay, often in Italy. This becomes a problem for local Italians who are not prepared to absorb so many migrants, who become an economic burden for Italy and contribute to a rising crime rate.
The new government in Italy refused to allow an NGO “rescue boat” to unload its 230 passengers in Italy. For a while the NGOs were able to land their illegal migrants in Malta, which lies between North Africa and Italy. Malta joined the EU in 2003 and found that EU rules obliged it to accept illegal migrants from North Africa who were picked up by NGO rescue boats and taken to the nearest EU nation where they were they could claim asylum. This was quite a burden for Malta, with a population of only half a million. In contrast Italy has 60 million and France 65 million. In 2015 Malta began refusing to allow the NGO boats to land, so the NGO boats took their passengers to Italy, The EU criticized Malta but did not try to force Malta to accept the illegals. At first Italy went along with accepting the illegals but eventually that became a political issue in Italy and now the NGO boats must take their passengers to France, which protested when 230 illegals were landed at a French port. The NGO boats are sponsored by EU members far from the problem, mainly Norway and Germany. Most EU members would prefer that all these illegals land in Italy, where most of the migrants will stay and become a problem for Italy but not the rest of the EU nations.
The EU is invoking UN resolutions covering the treatment of illegal migrants. None of this has the force of law and EU nations that end up receiving the illegals end up defying the rest of the EU and the UN by refusing to accept the illegals.
These problems with migrants started in the 1990s as criminal gangs in many parts of the world found that moving illegal migrants was a lucrative business. The gangs did not advertise their business practices but as nations discover illegal migrants from distant parts of the world showing up at their borders, questions are asked and answers are easily found.
For example, in 2019 American investigators found that international people smuggling syndicates had expanded into Central America and Mexico. The evidence was the appearance of hundreds of African and Middle Eastern illegal migrants into the United States. That turned the Mexican-Central American people smuggling operations into an even bigger business that was apparently earning the local and international smuggling syndicates over two billion dollars a year.
The Mexican connection was made possible by the power, and international connections, of Mexican drug cartels that control illegal operations along the U.S. border. Another assist came from American NGOs that support unrestricted migration into the United States. Similar NGOs in Europe had cooperated with smuggling gangs to get people into Europe. International criminal syndicates that specialize in smuggling people who can pay over long distances are nothing new. This began in the 1990s when Chinese syndicates nicknamed “snakeheads” operating in East Asia and North America began to move the illegals in large numbers. Three decades later the mechanics of these international people smuggling operations were well known and, when the conditions were right, the international angle showed up again, at least until local governments became less cooperative and more aggressive in making the smuggling business less profitable and more dangerous for the gangsters.
In Mexico, the illegals were, until the last few years, almost all Mexicans and others from Latin American nations. But now over a third of the illegals coming across the Mexican border are from much farther away and pay large fees to international criminal syndicates to travel long distances to reach Mexico and then across the border into the United States. Even before this Mexico had found itself unable to control the drug cartels that now are the real power on the Mexican side of the U.S. border. Anyone who wants to move illegal migrants across that border must pay the cartels for safe passage. The cartels can also arrange for easy entry into Mexico via airports or ship by bribing border and customs officials. The Mexican cartels made over $100 million a year from the fees the illegal migrants (via the groups moving them) pay to get across the border, and that does not include the lucrative fees for helping get international illegals into Mexico. The cartels make far more moving drugs but the people smuggling fees are another income source and confirm which cartel controls which segment of the border.
International people smuggling became big business in the 1990s when Chinese snakeheads offered to get Chinese or anyone who could pay in advance, into Western nations for a high fee (over $30,000 per person was common). The snakeheads extended credit if the family of a Chinese illegal migrant was known to the gang in China or Hong Kong or any Asian nation with a large Chinese community. To make this work there had to be another Chinese gang in the destination country, usually West Europe, Australia or North America, to see that the illegal migrant got a job and paid off the debt as soon as possible. If there was a problem with the illegal in their new country then family members back in China would be threatened. Groups like the Chinese snakeheads didn't care who they moved as long as it paid, preferably in advance. By the late 1990s snakeheads were found to be another way for terror groups to move their members into distant nations. After 2001 the smuggling gangs began avoiding moving anyone who might be an Islamic terrorist because that attracted additional attention by police and intelligence agencies.
By 2015 the most lucrative people smuggling routes involved multiple gangs moving illegal migrants through Mali to Algeria and Libya and then to southern Europe. European gangs got involved with moving these migrants from the African Mediterranean coast and into Europe. One investigation found that during one month in late 2014 at least a thousand Syrians were traveling from the Mauritanian border north to Algeria. The business was booming for people smugglers and by 2014 these criminal gangs were believed to have made over a billion dollars in that year getting Syrian and other Middle Eastern, African and Afghan migrants to Europe. As with the Chinese snakeheads, it often takes the efforts of multiple criminal gangs to move these illegal travelers from their home country via many borders and physical obstacles to Europe. Eventually, European nations asked Algeria (and other North African states) to cooperate in identifying and sharing information on the criminal gangs (from Europe and North Africa) most active in the people smuggling. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were inclined to cooperate since some of these gangs smuggle drugs and cooperate with Islamic terrorists.
People smugglers became more active all along the North African coast because there was much money to be made. The risks were low because European countries at that point would not jail or send back illegal migrants and some European nations even established a rescue service (of warships) in the Mediterranean so that the old and unreliable boats the smugglers use to take migrants to Europe have less to fear from storms or engines failing. As a result of this more locals, especially Algerians and Libyans were hiring smugglers to get them into Europe. While Libya was still in chaos, Algeria detected nearly 17,000 illegal migrants entering from the south in 2015. Algeria had agreements with some of the countries these illegals come from which allows them to be sent back. In 2015 over 45 percent of the known illegals were caught and returned. By 2018 European nations, especially Italy, cracked down on the people smuggling, refusing to accept boatloads and arresting the private European rescue groups that had boats between Libya and Italy to rescue smuggler boats in trouble and bring the illegal migrants to Italy. European navies were less cooperative as well.
The snakeheads are still in business because they find new and lucrative routes. For example, there is the dangerous (and lucrative) task of getting people from North Korea to South Korea. This has become a growing problem in South Korea because of the illegal debt (to North Korean and Chinese snakeheads) refugees from the north bring with them. The snakeheads will, for a fee of $10,000 to $20,000, get people out of North Korea, through China to a country (like Thailand) that tolerates the local South Korea embassy taking these refugees in and sending them to South Korea. The snakeheads know how much money South Korea gives these refugees to adjust and how much refugees can earn in the more affluent south and adjusts their fees accordingly. In effect, these refugees become employees of the snakeheads for years until their debt is paid off. If payments stop, the snakeheads can kidnap or kill kin still in North Korea or China. These new smuggling gangs learned how to do it noting what the older and still quite notorious “snakehead” gangs of China did it for decades. The snakehead debt collector pressure on North Korea refugees is often so great that some commit suicide or turn to crime. The fees the North Korean snakeheads demand have skyrocketed since 2016 as the North Korean government increased security on the Chinese border. This required more bribes to get people across as well as a greater risk of running into secret police who cannot be bribed and are looking for snakeheads to prosecute and execute.
Despite the higher snakehead fees, North Koreans still pay it and get to South Korea. That is made possible by the growing market economy and prevalence of bribes which enables many more North Koreans to raise the cash to pay the snakeheads immediately on arrival. The snakeheads are fine with this. In South Korea, these more affluent refugees often include government officials and military officers who fled North Korea with lots of useful insights on how the north worked and those insights were an asset in South Korea, an asset that had long-term benefits for those who made to the south.
The smuggling gangs constantly move their operations where there is the least legal or informal local resistance. Over the last decade Malta, Italy and Spain have all pushed back against the people smugglers. When that pressure eases, the smugglers come back.