As thousands enter Europe, EU flails in anti-smuggling efforts

Why did Frontex, the EU border agency, abruptly cancel a successful anti-smuggling pilot program in Greece?

A section of a camp for refugees called the Jungle, in Calais, France, Feb. 23, 2016.
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

CALAIS, France — Rami al-Halabi tried to stow away to England just once. He was with six men when one of them broke open the back door of an 18-wheeler that was stuck in traffic on its way to the ferry to cross the English Channel. The group hid inside and made it as far as the French border check before the police found them.

Halabi (a pseudonym — any evidence of him in another European country could jeopardize his asylum application in the U.K., and he granted an interview on the condition that Al Jazeera not publish his real name), a 30-year-old interior designer from Aleppo, Syria, says that after nine hours locked in the back of the truck, when the doors opened, he knew where he was only because the police were yelling at him in French, not English. There were no beatings, no tear gas and no pepper spray; the police just asked him to go back to the “Jungle.” He was lucky.

Set on top of a former garbage dump in the northern French port city of Calais, alongside a highway leading to the ferries and trains that cross a 20-mile span of the English Channel, the Jungle is a ramshackle collection of tents and plywood structures, a way station for 4,000 to 6,000 people who have fled their homes in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

By train, the trip from Calais to Dover, the nearest British city, takes just 20 minutes; by ferry it takes an hour and a half. For many of those living in the Jungle, the trip will take months. Every week, aid workers estimate that 50 to 70 residents illegally cross into England. Despite efforts by European governments and border services to stop them, many of the people are able to make the trip with the help of the smuggling networks that operate within and around Europe’s borders.

Four months after his attempt to sneak into the U.K., Halabi sips tea and chain smokes in an Afghan restaurant in the Jungle. In fluent English, he describes the bombs and bullets in his neighborhood in Aleppo, the trip he made with his family to a small city in southern Turkey and their decision to stay there. Two and a half years later, he fled Turkey alone. After losing all his money in a business venture gone wrong, he decided to head to Europe. He qualifies for international protection as a refugee of the Syrian war, and his reasons for going to the U.K. are political and economic.

French anti-riot police patrol in the Jungle, Feb. 21, 2016.
Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty Images

“I just need to work as soon as possible,” he says. “I speak English. I can go to the U.K. and find a job quickly.” This is one of his key motivations for wanting to move to England: Having to learn German or French, he explains, means more time before he can get back to work. And like thousands of others living in the Jungle, he thinks the U.K. will give him the best chance at a new life.

To get there, he will have to sneak in illegally, either on his own or with help. International law holds that people may apply for asylum at any country’s borders, embassies or once inside, even if they entered clandestinely. But European Union law grants refugees asylum only in the first European nation they step foot in. For him and many others, that was Greece, a country with few economic prospects, especially for a foreigner who doesn’t speak Greek.

Halabi is interrupted midsentence by the sounds of yelling and crackling, like far-off fireworks. He finishes his tea and pushes his way through the hanging rug that passes for the restaurant’s door. Outside, the stench of tear gas hangs in the damp coastal air.

“It’s too early. They always go too early,” he yells, pointing to the highway that runs alongside the Jungle to the port and tunnel. The highway is dotted with blue-lit police vans, flanked by two sets of barbed wire fences, and it is on fire.

Residents of the Jungle sometimes set large fires in the highway to stop traffic so they can jump in the back of trucks headed for England. Halabi quips that there are cultural differences in strategies among the Jungle’s residents: The Afghans tend to try earlier in the evening, while the Syrians prefer to go in the hours before dawn. The differences are also economic — Syrians in the Jungle, he says, are often able to pay a smuggler to take them to the U.K., while others typically make attempts on their own.

The French riot police, known as the CRS, are permanently stationed outside the encampment and often use tear gas and rubber bullets to fend off groups of people heading toward the highway. On the last night I met with Halabi, I watched the CRS lob tear gas canisters into the camp and, in two instances, shoot them directly at Jungle residents. The CRS does not comment on its tactics, but protocol holds that at close range, officers must bounce tear gas canisters off the ground and not shoot directly at people.

Stowing away to England used to be easier, Halabi says. Until recently there were three main parking lots in Calais where trucks stopped while waiting for the ferries, and people could sneak aboard them to get to England. Then last summer, the U.K. government pledged $11 million for new fences, scanners and surveillance equipment, and the French government increased the number of CRS officers stationed in the area. That hasn’t stopped people from crossing via the parking lots, he says. Now you just have to go through a smuggler.

“Now all is run by the mafia. If you go [to the lots] without paying, they’ll kill you,” he says.

No unified front

There are many ways to enter Europe irregularly. Halabi says he made a decision to go through Greece because travel to the Greek islands from Turkey was the closest, fastest, cheapest and safest option and because he had a few friends who made it to Europe via that route. After deciding to leave Turkey, he spent a week planning his trip, using information from friends who had made the journey and from Facebook groups run by refugees in Europe.

One friend recommended a smuggler, whom Halabi paid $1,000 for safe passage from Turkey to Greece. As the migration business has expanded, third-party offices have developed all over coastal Turkey to facilitate such transactions. To pay a smuggler, he explains, you deposit the money with a local escrow office and are given a code. After you reach Greece, you give the smuggler the code, and the smuggler collects the money, after the office takes a cut. If you don’t make it and are returned to Turkey, you can go back to the office and reclaim your funds.

Despite how much of the smuggling business happens out in the open, on both sides of the border, EU governments have not focused on combating smuggling, says Panayiotis Harelas, the president of the Greek Border Police Union. “Europe hasn’t focused on locating [smugglers], and it hasn’t focused on policy that is necessary to combat those rings in Greece and Turkey.”

Frontex personnel and police officers help refugees off a boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Feb. 20, 2016.
Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty Images

Nor do Greek police actively investigate smuggling networks, he says, claiming that this is because they are understaffed and underequipped. Although the number of people entering Europe through Greece has spiked — more than 850,000 people landed in Greece last year, and the number of arrivals this January was 21 times the number in January 2015 — he says, the Greek police have not been able to hire new border guards in over a decade.

Halabi was one of the people who entered Greece last year with the help of a smuggler. There was a storm before his boat departed for Lesbos, he remembers. His boat, a 30-foot dinghy with “only” 40 people aboard, left on the first clear day. Because nobody crossed during the storm, the camp and registration point on the other side were nearly empty, and he got his papers from the police quickly. He was given a document that allowed for him to pass through Greece to Macedonia, a step along what some call the humanitarian corridor, which begins in Greece and spreads north and west. Not once along his journey did police ask him about the smuggler he used to get to Greece.

Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, this week opened the European Migrant Smuggling Center to share information on and combat smuggling in Europe. It will put smaller Europol programs under a central command, focusing on Greece. The strategy, the agency said, is to assist the police forces of European countries with the investigation and prosecution of smugglers. Europol considers Calais and the Greek islands hot spots of organized crime activity on the continent and has said that 90 percent of migrants to Europe arrive via smugglers, who made $3 million to $7 million trafficking people there in 2015 alone.

While the Europol initiative is the most recent EU attempt to combat international smuggling, it’s not the first. In 2011, the EU border agency, Frontex, launched a pilot program to target smuggling in Greece.

That program, the Mobile Operation Unit (MOU), ran for just under a year in 2011 and was never made public. According to testimonies from multiple former Frontex employees and internal Frontex documents received via freedom of information requests, the MOU was designed to test a new strategy to combat smuggling, was overwhelmingly successful and then was quietly canceled.

The MOU project arose because Greek courts were often unable to impose strict penalties on smugglers for lack of evidence. The goal was to aid the Greek coast guard by gathering information from new arrivals about trafficking networks in and outside Greece. The program utilized a small, versatile operational group made up of a Frontex officer, a Greek police officer and an interpreter, says Alexander Dalli, a former Frontex employee and one of the MOU’s founders. Before working at Frontex, he coordinated search and rescue operations for the Maltese military and trained with the U.S. Coast Guard.

He says that the MOU intercepted newly arrived boats in Greece and that Frontex linguists interviewed new arrivals in their own language through an interpreter, which was key to the unit’s success. This was Frontex’s first attempt to combat the smuggling networks and, he says, “the only project in Europe that was dealing with organized crime.” When suspected smugglers were found, Greek police dealt with them directly.

Part of the reason the MOU worked, says a senior Greek official with knowledge of Frontex operations and the MOU, was that it allowed the EU to help manage borders without treading on the autonomy of national border forces. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works on Greek border issues in the same area as Frontex.

‘Europe hasn’t focused on locating [smugglers], and it hasn’t focused on policy that is necessary to combat those rings in Greece and Turkey.’

Panayiotis Harelas

president of the Greek Border Police Union

“How can a common police network dismantle a smuggling network with no language skills and operational experience?” asks the official. “[The MOU] helped the Greeks dismantle the smuggling networks, and the results were obvious.”

According to an internal Frontex evaluation of the MOU, published at the end of 2011, just before the program was canceled, the unit helped detain 22 smugglers who were responsible for moving more than 750 people from Turkey to Greece. An average of over 1,000 people cross to Greece every day, and the Greek official says the MOU was extremely effective in reducing migration to the Greek islands.

Klaus Roesler, the director of operations at Frontex, agreed at one point. In an internal email seen by Al Jazeera, he writes that the MOU was valuable in the fight against illegal migration and the organized transport of refugees. In the internal evaluation of the MOU, the program is described in overwhelmingly positive terms and as a cost-effective way of investigating smuggling.

In an email sent in late December 2011, Roesler canceled the MOU project. Dalli and other Frontex employees with knowledge of the project say that came as a surprise. Roesler did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. A representative for Frontex explained that while the MOU helped the Greek police investigate smuggling activity, it was canceled for technical reasons and because of a lack of funding.

Frontex would not comment on MOU tactics, but internal documents paint a picture of an operation very different from current European border operations, which focus on deportations, and measuring and charting migration trends and the flow of people through Europe. According to MOU operational documents, people who crossed irregularly into Greece were considered criminals by default, which permitted Frontex officials and Greek police to search their possessions and ask them to participate in voluntary interviews, some of which pertained to smuggling.

Current Frontex operations in Greece conduct voluntary interviews, called debriefings, with recent arrivals on the islands, but this information is not used to prosecute smugglers.

Frontex budgets have grown along with the migration numbers. In response to the crisis, the 2015 budget of $127 million was increased to $196 million this year. According to a European Commission white paper quietly released in December, the EU has proposed to put more money into Frontex and has said it will entertain the possibility of sending border forces into a country against its government’s will if Frontex or the European Commission deems the borders inadequately protected.

Harelas is skeptical of Europol’s efforts in Greece. National border forces, he says, are overwhelmed, underfunded and gravely disconnected from Brussels. The Greek official shares this belief. So far, he says, ongoing smuggling investigations in Europe have brought “almost no results.” 

Finding safe passage

Once in Greece, Halabi was given a document that allowed him safe passage through the rest of Europe. He traveled from Greece to Macedonia and through Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Germany and France and was never once asked for his Syrian passport. Nor was he ever asked how he got to Europe. He doesn’t remember if he interacted with Frontex employees or police from the countries he passed through on the way to the Jungle. It’s likely that if he spoke to Frontex officers, he wouldn’t have known; they work in their home country’s uniform and are identifiable only by a blue Frontex armband.

He was not trafficked, he says. He wanted to go to Europe, and a smuggler was the only way he could do so. Had there been a legal option, he says, he would have taken it.

During the four months he has lived at the Jungle, Halabi’s cheap nylon tent has been upgraded to a lightly insulated plywood box, built by the volunteer aid workers, mostly English, who work in the Jungle. The box is big enough to stand up inside, and he lives there by himself. Inside, he has a pile of sleeping bags and blankets and a few cartons of juice. With pride, he says that, aside from this shelter, he never took handouts from volunteers. He carried everything he needed on the journey with him from Turkey. By Jungle standards, he is lucky.

Down the street, a group of Afghan kids play cricket with an oversize bat and an old boot as their wicket. Next to them is a roaring fire; abandoned tents are being burned for warmth. Nearby, three CRS agents guard the entrance to the Jungle, gripping their tear gas and rubber bullet launchers, unsure whether to pay more attention to the fire or the cricket match.

Halabi says his makeshift home in the Jungle is bad but not very bad. “There are restaurants, places to sit. As long as it’s temporary, you can live with it,” he says.

In Turkey he applied for asylum in the U.K., but half a year later, he still has not received a response. He won’t reveal how he plans to get to the U.K. But every week, many in the same situation make it via the smugglers who work those three parking lots in Calais.

“I’m here, running out of money waiting for the unknown to happen,” he says. Whatever he has planned, he says the wait is unnerving. This will be the second border he has crossed illegally in six months.

Later that day, in an uninsulated trailer in a nearby parking lot, an aid worker quips that the Jungle has the feeling of a California boomtown during the gold rush. Only without the gold.

Perhaps, another volunteer says, getting to England is their gold. 

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