Human smugglingSmuggling of people from Africa to Europe conducted by “independent traders,” not Mafia-like monopoly

Published 29 January 2018

First study to model the organization behind trade in illegal border crossings shows no “Mafia-like” monopoly of routes from Africa into Europe via Mediterranean. Instead, myriad independent smugglers compete in open markets that have emerged at every stage of the journey.

Latest research shows a lack of overarching coordination or the involvement of any “kingpin”-style monopolies in the criminal operations illegally transporting people from the Horn of Africa into Northern Europe via Libya.

Instead, transnational smuggling routes were found to be highly segmented: each stage a competitive marketplace of “independent and autonomous” smugglers – as well as militias and kidnappers – that must be negotiated by migrants fighting for a life beyond the Mediterranean Sea.

The first “network analysis” of this booming criminal enterprise suggests that successful smugglers need a reputation among migrants – and that removing any individual smuggler will only result in rivals immediately seizing their “market share”.

Dr. Paolo Campana from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology conducted the research using evidence from the 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors that followed the Lampedusa shipwreck, in which 366 people lost their lives.

The work included data from wiretapped telephone conversations between smugglers at all stages, testimonies collected from migrants, interviews with police task force members, and background information on offenders. 

“The smuggling ring moving migrants from the Horn of Africa to Northern Europe via Libya does not appear to have the thread of any single organization running through it,” said Campana, whose findings are published today in the European Journal of Criminology

“This is a far cry from how Mafia-like organizations operate, and a major departure from media reports claiming that shadowy kingpins monopolize certain routes.”

In fact, it was the Anti-Mafia unit with the Palermo Prosecutor’s Office initially tasked with investigating smuggling operations on both sides of the Mediterranean in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster in October 2013.  

Campana points out that they found no evidence of any involvement from the Sicilian Mafia at the time, even through payment of protection money – despite Sicily being a key stage in the smuggling route.      

The two indictments prepared by the Palermo unit – totaling some 800 pages – formed a major part of the dataset Campana combed through to code all possible data points: references to times, names, events, exchanges, locations and so on.