Opportunities of Convenience

Posted By January 25, 2016 No Comments

Refugee Smuggling, Organized Crime Syndicates, Terrorism, and the Canadian Implications

Now in its fifth year, the ongoing Syrian conflict has seen the displacement of more than 4.2 million people into neighbouring countries, as well as into European countries where these refugees have been seeking asylum.

The means by which these refugees have managed to reach Europe and the routes they have taken have, to a considerable extent, been controlled by local organized crime syndicates that have traditionally smuggled weapons and narcotics. But refugee smuggling has quickly become a billion-dollar business, possibly now more profitable than the trade in illegal narcotics.[1]

And where there is money, there is opportunity. Recent reports have suggested that the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) is itself involved in such smuggling operations, both to get its fighters into Europe undetected and to raise money to fund its operations.[2]

Western Libya is the main launch pad for smugglers sending refugees to Italy, across the Mediterranean Sea. Before Moamar Ghadafi’s regime was overthrown in 2011, Libya had drastically limited the migration and trafficking into Europe. But since then, with greater instability in the country, Libya has seen a sharp spike in the number of migrants departing from its shores.[3] The United Nations has estimated that more than 60,000 migrants have made the journey by boat in 2015 with about 1,800 losing their lives during the crossing.[4]


Sea-based migration routes to Europe as of September 2015. Green circles locate refugee arrival points in Europe.[5]



The movement of refugees towards Europe has reportedly generated nearly $323 million for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The financial opportunity is so great that international crime experts believe IS may have orchestrated some attacks with the intent of displacing people and then profiting from their flight by increasing the control of smuggling routes. “Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS needs a totally different scale of funds because they run an army and provide social services”, says Christian Nelleman, director of the Norwegian Center for Global Analysis.[6] In fact, smugglers are typically charging $800-$1000 a head to reach Libya, and then between $1,500 and $1,900 to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. In a recent TIME interview, one migrant described having to pay different armed groups along numerous steps on his 4-month journey to reach Libya from Senegal. According to the article, “the value of this trade dwarfs any existing trafficking and smuggling businesses in the region, and has particularly strengthened groups with a terrorist agenda, including the Islamic State.”[7]

European officials are just starting to piece together a picture of the organized crime networks involved. Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, estimates that there are around 30,000 people involved in these human smuggling groups. Many are taking advantage of the opportunities, while others are well established groups who have recently expanded their focus from traditional drug smuggling. In Libya, 150 migrants crowded onto wooden trawlers can generate $150,000. In Turkey, trips aboard larger, but equally unseaworthy, old cargo ships can net nearly $4 million in profit. These are called ‘ghost ships’ because the crews abandon the ships as they near the European shoreline. The safety of the vessels is of little concern to the smugglers; they get their money whether the migrants survive or not as the fees are paid upfront.[8]

On the north side of the Mediterranean, the criminal syndicates have been involved in these activities for years. There tend to be well established smuggling networks operated by groups well experienced in human trafficking.[9]

Bulgaria is also a prominent transit point for human trafficking. Organized crime syndicates in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus have established links with Bulgaria being at the centre. The routes are by both land and sea, across Turkey and the Black Sea, respectively. The smugglers are in control of the routes and to a large extent are able to define the direction of migration. They use their established logistical operations to facilitate the travel of migrants. Since the availability of transportation is dependent on smugglers, the route options are weighed based on availability of journeys, financial feasibility, lower mortality risks and shorter travel times or distances.[10]

map 2

Migration routes (land based) into Europe. Orange arrows are migration routes; red lines are barriers. These routes are constantly evolving. Governments of affected countries are rapidly changing.[11]


The Black Sea is relatively unexplored as a migrant route, but with the pressure on overland routes increasing due to the volume of migrants, and adverse weather conditions in the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea may present an alternative transit point towards Europe.[12]

The Black Sea has been identified as a route for human trafficking from Georgia to Turkey and Bulgaria. Land and maritime trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan through central Asia and Iran use Batumi, Georgia as a transit port across the Black Sea into Europe. There is a concrete trafficking infrastructure in place which will act as an alternative route for Syrian migrants. But while land transport remains a safer alternative than sea crossing, the use of civilian transport such as buses are limited in availability. The price for land-based smuggling from Turkey to the EU has reportedly ranged from $7,500 to $12,500.[13]

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

According to an Islamic State operative – whose claims were backed up by two Turkish refugee smugglers – more than 4,000 fighters have been smuggled into Western Europe across the Turkish border with Syria – hidden amongst bona fide refugees. He claims there are now over 4,000 covert militants across Europe waiting to be called to action as part of a larger plot by IS in retaliation for the US-led coalition airstrikes.[14]

There are at least 6 media-reported incidents of IS fighters attempting to gain access to the EU by hiding amongst refugees. There are two additional reports involving Jabhat al-Nusra.[15] The reports have been documented by pictures posted on social media platforms.[16] And while the actual number of militants infiltrating the West is relatively quite small, it does pose a real and evolving threat. At the very least, the risk is impeding the flow of legitimate refugees and asylum seekers into numerous countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria (and most recently the USA) where extreme right-wing views are gaining traction. In any event, the scenario only benefits the Islamic State. “Either the ruse will be successful and ISIS will have yet another way to travel into areas where they do not have an operational presence or the few ISIS members who are caught will incite a backlash of popular opinion and a harsh over reaction from EU members which will radicalize more within their own borders.”[17]

Fake Passports

The Islamic State has control over Syria’s passport operations and has been producing official but fraudulent passports for quite some time. Issuance of passports is one source of financing for the terrorist group. It is believed that foreign nationals of poor countries are now traveling to Syria as economic migrants, purchasing fake passports, and using them to enter the EU as Syrian refugee claimants. Producing passports is also an important means of getting IS fighters into Europe for terrorist-related purposes. Additionally, IS has used such passports to send its people to other countries for the purpose of collecting funds. The most striking story involves the IS leader’s wife and children who were living in a UNHCR refugee camp while collecting terrorist funds and transporting the funds back to IS in Syria. The wife was reportedly serving as a money mule for a year before being arrested by Lebanese officials.[18]

The Canadian Context

Despite the Trudeau government’s humanitarian objective of opening our borders to 25,000 Syrian refugees immediately, and despite assurances that the vetting process is comprehensive and secure, in the case of fraudulent but real passports being issued in Syria by the Islamic State, it will in reality be a difficult task for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) to ascertain the true identity of these refugees. We are talking about people coming from a country with no effective government and with no agencies with whom our officials can confirm identities.

This is not to monger fear but to point out the obvious challenges and risks. It is possible that IS militants may disguise themselves amongst genuine refugees fleeing horrible conflict. And while some of these potential militants may in fact be disenchanted fighters trying to escape IS with no intent to cause further harm, there exists the small but real risk that the opposite is also true.

While there is a theoretical terrorism risk to Canada, this does not mean that we should close our borders. We can, however, mitigate the risk by making choices about which refugees are let in – an approach the government has already taken. Mitigating risk means accepting those who fall outside of the demographic high risk group; namely, families, women and children. Another low risk category includes the well-educated and previously gainfully employed – partly since their identities are more easily identifiable. Of course it is widely known that many terrorists are well-educated, and so while this does not remove the risk, it is really the best due diligence we can do. Short of this we let the risk from a few, impact the safety and prosperity of many.[19]