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East/West: Human Trafficking, Part 1 - A Europe-Wide Problem

By Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos

The continuing large-scale trafficking of illegal immigrants from East to West has underlined major problems of immigration among West European nations. Today, RFE/RL correspondents Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos begin a four-part series on illegal immigration with an overall look at the problem of trafficking and how it fits into a global trend of increased migration to the West.

Prague, 13 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Hashim began his nine-month trek from Afghanistan, he didn't care much if he made it to Italy, Germany, or Austria. Nor did he care who took care of him when he arrived. With a war raging at home and an impoverished family of 10, Hashim -- who is the eldest son -- knew his only option was to make it across the border -- any border -- into Western Europe. There, he believed, he could get work and help his family and himself.

Hashim explains why he made the trek:

"There's a war in Afghanistan. The Taliban started fighting and they wanted to recruit me into the army. And I didn't want to go into the army to kill people. My father sold some of his property and then told me: 'You have to leave. Get out of here, go to study.' And we arrived here. Now I don't know what the future holds."

The 15-year-old Hashim came close, but never made it into a European Union country. After paying traffickers in Afghanistan some $8,000, he was dumped in the Czech Republic just short of the German border. His traffickers told him he would need more money to cross the border.

Hashim's family had sold their land to raise his smuggling fare, and now the likelihood of him earning more money in the Czech Republic is slim. So his only choice is to wait out a lengthy asylum process in his Czech refugee camp. His only contact with his family back home is listening to radio reports from Afghanistan.

Hashim's story is not an unusual one. While it highlights the increasing role of human traffickers as the travel agents of illegal immigration, it also demonstrates that there is a new wave of migrants from Africa to Albania desperate to live better lives in the West.

Fred Laczko is the head of research at the International Organization of Migration, or IOM, based in Geneva. He says that last year western Europe absorbed close to half a million illegal immigrants who were fleeing a wide range of economic and political woes in countries around the world. They include China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and African, Middle Eastern, and former Soviet countries. Laczko says great migration pressures on western Europe came after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:

"Certainly, the fall of the Berlin Wall had two effects: One, people from third-world countries could take different routes to reach western Europe. They could start transiting through the countries of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe far more easily than in the past. Secondly, many of the people in those poorer countries -- such as, especially, Romania [and] also countries like Armenia -- decided to move westwards."

Laczko points out that most migrants are not trafficked, but rather enter a country legally and then simply overstay their authorized visit.

"One can say [illegal immigration has] always been around. What has changed perhaps is the ways in which [immigrants] try to enter countries illegally or how people become illegal migrants. I think the first point to make is that whether it's the United States or Europe, the most common way in which somebody becomes an illegal migrant is to enter the country legally and then to overstay -- not to return after say three months after you've entered the country as a tourist."

According to Laczko, entering western Europe legally is fairly easy to do if you're from a country that the West accepts as a tourist. He says that a significant portion of western Europe's illegal immigrants now come from central or eastern Europe who dip into the EU for six months to a year to make some money to take back to their families at home. But some of the immigrants, he adds, never go back, choosing instead to build a life in western Europe, where they can get jobs as unskilled laborers and maintain a lifestyle far above the level prevailing in former Soviet countries.

Laczko says the difficult road of migration is for those who can not get a tourist visa into the West because they are from impoverished or war-torn countries. These would-be migrants must opt for falsified documents -- if they have enough money -- or take the risky route of being smuggled.

"If you don't have very much money to pay somebody in advance, you will probably take a more risky route, overland or by sea. And it's well documented that there are many hazards there. And the smugglers [will often use the cheapest forms of transport they can find because they want to maximize their profits]. And they will pack either containers or boats with many people again to maximize their profits. And that's where tragedies and human rights abuses occur during the process of smuggling and transportation to richer destination countries."

Jean-Claude Chenais of the Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris says a more open policy of immigration needs to be adopted by EU countries to curtail trafficking and to cope with the waves of immigration that he says is not going to disappear. He says tougher policies are actually in the best interest of the smugglers.

"If you have a very tight, very tough policy, it's the best incentive to all smugglers, all traffickers."

Chenais notes western Europe needs immigrants to compensate for a declining birth rate and to fill what he calls a "massive" need both for unskilled labor and for certain high-tech jobs. He believes that establishing annual quotas to fill vacant jobs is better than the "no-immigration" policy some EU countries have adopted. But Chenais acknowledges that policymakers are in a difficult position because their electorates don't want more immigrants in their countries.

"Policymakers are in a very sad situation. If you are a policymaker or [a politician,] it is very difficult to tackle this question because you know from surveys conducted in your country or conducted by the European Commission -- the [EU's] Euro barometer -- you know that the opinion is massively against immigrations. It's rather unpopular. And it has always been unpopular -- it's always the same. The latest waves of immigrants are always considered as underdeveloped, illiterate and so [on]. This is always the same."

Chenais says it is difficult to determine how many illegal immigrants are trafficked into Europe or the West in general each year. But he says that it is clear that tightening the borders will not do much to stem the tide. His conclusion is that, unless the EU and other countries find a better way to deal with the continuing waves of immigrants, those from poor or war-torn countries -- like Hashim -- will have no choice but to try their luck on the route of human smuggling.