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Combating human traffickers

December 6, 2016

Closed borders only help traffickers. Germany wants more international cooperation - in Europe and Africa.

Bundespolizei Pressefoto - Einsatz gegen Schleuser
Image: Bundespolizei

November 2016 in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam and the Austrian capital, Vienna: More than 300 police officers search apartments in seven German states and arrest suspects. Austrian agents move against human traffickers at the same time. Authorities announce an "international sting against an organized human trafficking ring conducted by federal police."

Bavaria, June 2016: German federal police discover a moving van. The driver - gone; inside - 20 tightly-crowded Afghans. Each paid 5,000 euros ($5,400) for the journey from Budapest to Germany. After questioning, police alert the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Youth services attend to the 11 minors on board.

Bundespolizei Pressefoto - Einsatz gegen Schleuser
The arrest of a suspected human trafficker in BudapestImage: Bundespolizei

Budapest, August 2016: Hungarian special forces, accompanied by German federal police, arrest a Syrian and a Hungarian. They are suspected of being "members of a human trafficking organization." Federal police in Bavaria had previously arrested several drivers and identified organizers. The arrested were extradited to Germany.

These are just three examples of the numerous operations that German federal police have conducted against human traffickers. Police are working ever-closer with international partners. In September, there were arrests in Italy, Belgium, France and Sweden. Bavaria's 815-kilometer (506-mile) border with Austria and 360-kilometer border with the Czech Republic is where refugees traveling along the Balkan route, and those crossing the Brenner Pass from Italy, reach Germany. This European interior border has been monitored since autumn 2015.

Death at the hands of traffickers

In 2015, a shocking discovery was made in Austria: 71 people were found to have suffocated in horrifying fashion in the back of a Hungarian truck. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) recorded three cases of "trafficking related deaths" in Germany between 2009 and 2015. The trend is growing.

Tote Flüchtlinge in LKW entdeckt Österreich Parndorf Neusiedl am See
In August 2015, 71 people were discovered dead in the back of a Hungarian truck in AustriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Schlager

The Frankfurt Oder District Court, for instance, convicted a Syrian to four years in prison for "attempted criminal and professional human trafficking resulting in death." He had organized a transport from Turkey to Greece, for which he demanded 2,400 euros per person. After a motor failure, the overfilled transport boat capsized - five people died as a result.

Border closures benefit traffickers

In 2015, many refugees were able to cross borders along the Balkan route without the aid of human traffickers. Periodically, state authorities themselves organized transport. That ruined traffickers' business, says United Nations advisor Andreas Schloenhardt.

Meanwhile, Europe has decided to wall itself off: In the spring of 2016, illegal border crossings dropped significantly, recalls the federal police agency. After Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, Macedonia, too, closed its border.

In April, the EU-Turkey refugee agreement, in which Turkey pledged to take back migrants from Greece if they were not granted asylum, went into effect. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said of the Turkey agreement: "It has allowed us to destroy the human traffickers' business model."

Nevertheless, Germany's Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) is convinced that people who can pay enough money to traffickers can still reach the country. Daily illegal border crossings, says the BMI, are in the lower three-digit range.

More than 4,700 dead and missing in the Mediterranean  

With the Balkan route more or less closed, thousands of people are now attempting to reach Europe from North Africa by crossing the Mediterranean. Very often, unseaworthy vessels are dangerously overladen with refugees. That increases human traffickers' profits, and refugees' risk of death when rescue boats are not nearby.

Flüchtlingsboot im Mittelmeer
Many refugees on overloaded boats need rescuing on the Mediterranean SeaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ong Sos Mediterranee

Although fewer people have set out across the Mediterranean compared to 2015, some 4,700 people have drowned or gone missing at sea this year - more than at any other time.

Roughly 172,000 people, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, have landed in Greece in 2016; and almost 174,000, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have landed in Italy. Germany has pledged to take in 500 people per month from Greece and 500 per month from Italy. Many EU states, however, are currently boycotting quotas.

Fight against human traffickers in Africa

How can people be kept from crossing the Mediterranean? The EU and Germany are betting on cooperation with countries of origin and transit.

Talks are also being conducted with Niger, through which many people from West Africa travel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered Niger, Ethiopia and Chad help in the fight against human traffickers. Germany wants to advise interior and defense ministers and, if needed, deploy German police officers.

Afrika Kanzlerin Merkel besucht Niger
Merkel visited a transit center for refugees in Niger in OctoberImage: Reuters/T. Djibo

Currently, the EU is seeking migration agreements - to thwart illegal immigration to Europe and repatriate those denied asylum - with Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia. Development aid is being offered in return.

What helps against human traffickers?

Solutions have been sought in light of the many deaths on the Mediterranean. "Establishing EU reception centers in North Africa" is one idea, says Helmut Teichmann, who heads the BMI's federal police. The objective must be "to deny human traffickers their basis for business and protect migrants from the life-threatening voyage across the Mediterranean." 

Bonn Alaa Houd syrischer Flüchtling
Traffickers helped Alaa Houd reach GermanyImage: DW/S. Schug

In a shared statement, aid organizations Pro Asyl, medico international and Bread for the World warned: "The fight against so-called human traffickers - increasingly with military means - will be ineffective as long as legal and safe access routes remain closed."

That is also what Syrian refugee Alaa Houd told DW: "Whether Europe or the entire world fights traffickers or not - people in danger will always find a way to flee. I would do it again in a heartbeat, I would have been dead long ago if I had stayed in Damascus."