BUDAPEST • With thousands of migrants pouring out of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the business of smuggling them across the Balkans into the European Union (EU) has grown even larger than the illicit trade in drugs and weapons, law enforcement officials said. There are few limits to the sophistication of these people smugglers, and the European authorities estimated them to number 30,000.
Officials say the deadly business that may be worth billions of dollars is preying on the sheer desperation of growing numbers of people fleeing war and poverty in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia.
Smugglers belonging to loose networks are increasingly using well-organised routes and ruthless tactics to bring waves of refugees and migrants to Europe. They are resorting to Facebook and other social media to advertise their services, negotiate prices and arrange travel venues and times for migrants, the officials said.
"It's probably the most profitable business there is," said Ms Izabella Cooper, spokesman for Frontex, which monitors the EU's borders.
"There is a growing number of networks that we saw in the past were dealing in the trafficking of illegal drugs and are now shifting to people smuggling. The number of criminal activities is growing with the same speed as the number of illegal migrants," said Mr Robert Crepinko, head of the organised crime unit at Europol, the European Union's policing arm.
"It is the top priority for sure, not only for Europol, but for all member states," Mr Crepinko said. "If you talk about the whole range of illegal migration across Europe, not only focusing on the Mediterranean, the number is 30,000 suspects."
But as only one-tenth of the suspects in Europe are specifically involved in moving people across the Mediterranean, Europol's remit also covers other routes, including the increasingly popular western Balkans into Hungary route.
The task of the European authorities is complicated by the network of routes that desperate refugees and migrants take. The migrants can sometimes plot a route from Turkey to Germany with one central coordinator and are passed from gang to gang, paying as they go, said Ms Livia Styp-Rekowska, a senior immigration and border management specialist at the International Organisation for Migration.
But the dangerous methods employed by the people smugglers to transport their human cargo too often ends in tragedy, as seen by a spate of marine disasters that led to the drowning of more than 2,600 attempting to reach Europe by boat, and the death of scores of migrants who suffocated to death while being taken to Austria from Hungary in the back of a truck.
Officials said the smuggling groups in the Balkans varied in size and sophistication. Usually, they are local organised crime groups that have simply seized on a moneymaking opportunity, said Frontex's Ms Cooper. They normally hire Afghan or Syrian representatives to act as their agents on the ground, handling contact with potential customers.
"If a migrant has a lot of money, smugglers can get them a forged passport or a stolen ID card with a visa, together with a plane ticket to a chosen European country," she said. "But this option is affordable only for a handful of people."
Some Syrian refugees have found a cheaper, safer, though much more roundabout way of reaching Europe than crossing the Mediterranean - heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia, sometimes even by bicycle.
As world attention focuses on migrants cramming into trains in Hungary or onto flimsy boats headed for Greece or Italy, Norwegian police say about 170, mostly Syrian, refugees have used the Storskog border crossing in the far north of Norway so far this year, up from just a dozen in the whole of last year.
Warm relations between Moscow and Damascus mean that it is relatively easy for Syrians to get visas for Russia. From there, they move on to Norway, a member of Europe's passport-free Schengen area, though not of the EU.
Mr Patrik Engstrom, head of the Swedish police's national border policing section, said his agency has uncovered schemes to get to Sweden that are as basic as travelling in a recreational vehicle over a bridge. But some are as complicated as a chartered plane that lifted off from Turkey, charging the Syrian passengers about US$10,000 (S$14,250) each. When they landed, they claimed asylum, he said, reported The Washington Post.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS