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The Business Of Smuggling Migrants Across The Mediterranean

Some 800 migrants from the Middle East arrive at the Greek port of Piraeus on Sunday. Smugglers are charging thousands of dollars to take migrants across the Mediterranean, and prices can vary widely. Children are often allowed to travel for free.
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Some 800 migrants from the Middle East arrive at the Greek port of Piraeus on Sunday. Smugglers are charging thousands of dollars to take migrants across the Mediterranean, and prices can vary widely. Children are often allowed to travel for free.

The massive wave of people fleeing the Middle East and Africa face dangerous conditions to make the trip across the Mediterranean Sea, crowded onto rickety boats and overloaded ships. An estimated 2,000 migrants have died so far this year alone.

But, despite the danger, the burgeoning business of smuggling migrants has taken on some retail features.

Smugglers sending desperate migrants from Egypt to Europe are looking to make money — but they do offer discounts. Small children can go for free; migrants who organize a group can go free, as a sort of referral bonus.

Cutting The Deal

Agami, a coastal town in Egypt, is now flush with Syrians who fled their country's civil war. Members of one family there explained how they shopped for a smuggler.

When he spoke with NPR, the father of the family used his nickname, Abu Mohamed, because he's worried about his family still in Syria and because he's sending his children across the Mediterranean on a dangerous voyage.

First, Abu Mohamed said, there's the decision to go. He made that decision for his children over a year ago. He then tracked down a broker through other Syrian families.

"It's easy to find them," he says of the brokers who funnel people into the system. It's all by word of mouth, and most of the brokers here are Syrian.

Then the deal is done on the phone.

The broker gets in touch with the smuggler, who charges between $2,000 and $5,000 per person, depending on the nationality and legal status of the person trying to leave.

In Abu Mohamed's case, he's sending his 14-year-old son and his 20-year-old daughter. The smuggler gave him a deal: His youngest son gets to go for free because he's traveling with a group of 10 others.

"Ten Syrians means one Syrian for free," he says, laughing sarcastically.

In other cases, children under 11 years old commonly go for free.

Abu Mohamed's daughter's trip costs $2,500, which they paid by borrowing money from a relative.

Abu Mohamed and his wife know the risk. They know they might lose their oldest children at sea — but they're doing it anyway. It's the only way they'll have a future, they say.

After they made their deal, they waited for the phone to ring.

"The person who calls tells you where to go to meet them," Abu Mohamed says. "After that, I don't know where they take them."

The phone call has come a few times for his children. Last year they tried to make the trip at least once, but it didn't work because of infighting among smugglers. So they returned home and waited for the seas to calm.

They've had backpacks packed for over a year.

"There's a lifejacket, water, Snickers, Galaxy bars and dates," Abu Mohamed says of the contents of the little bags they're allowed to take. They restock the food once a week.

Recently the phone call came again and his two kids were sent off. But they soon returned, saying they had started to wade into the water when smugglers became wary of the Egyptian coast guard and aborted the attempt.

The Smuggler's View

If this family represents the demand side of the smuggling market, an Egyptian smuggler provided NPR with a glimpse of the supply side.

He's a fisherman, living in Baltim on Egypt's north coast, who smuggles people at night. It's illegal, so he goes by Abu Ayman, which is not his full name.

Abu Ayman is a small cog in the large smuggling network that spans from Sudan to Libya. His job is to take migrants out of Egyptian waters and hand them off to bigger boats that will ship hundreds at a time toward Europe. Despite the fear of arrest, Abu Ayman does the work.

"It's good money," he says.

In a day or two of fishing he's lucky if he makes $65. But for smuggling he makes about $650 per person. On his last trip, two months ago, he and his partners made more than $13,000 for transporting 20 people.

Abu Ayman pointed out the sand dunes and palm trees along the water where he sneaked people out to sea. Often the migrants have to swim from boat to boat. He showed the little holiday huts where the migrants wait until the fishermen pick them up to begin the journey.

He's not sure when he'll smuggle again. The coast guard is clamping down some. And his guilt grows every time he sees news of migrants drowning.

"I fear I'll be asked about it on judgment day," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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