Refugee Traffickers

The Business of Human Misery

Looking for a better place to live. Source: DPA
Human trafficking is on the rise in Europe, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said in an interview.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • If Europe does not produce a coordinated response to the flood of refugees from Iraq and Syria, it has the potential to feed right-wing movements on the Continent.
  • Facts


    • The number of asylum requests to the European Union rose by 23 percent to more than 216,000 in the first half of 2014.
    • Germany received the most asylum requests, with 65,700 applications, in the first half of 2014.
    • In the third quarter of 2014, about a third of all asylum requests to the European Union were made in Germany.
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With war in Syria raging and refugees streaming into Europe, the business of human trafficking is flourishing. The dealers behind this dark enterprise are getting rich off the misery of Syrians and Iraqis desperate to make their way across the Mediterranean.

Since last September, the U.N. refugee agency has reported that human traffickers have increasingly been using unmanned large tugboats, or “ghost ships,” to smuggle refugees into European countries. The traffickers are setting the boat’s course and then abandoning ship, leaving it to European authorities to save the thousands of people crammed on board.

“Ghost ships” are the latest trend, according to UNHCR spokesman William Spindler, who told the BBC on Saturday that “it is apparent there have been other such incidents – maybe four or five in the past two months.”

According to the International Organization for Migration, the journey from Turkey to Italy, where many refugees arrive in Europe, costs between $4,500 and $6,000. But an illegal smuggling organization in northern Germany that used tug boats, which the German federal police discovered last summer, was asking for up to €10,000 ($11,958) per person to smuggle refugees into Germany.

The war in Syria has led to an explosion in refugees. In 2014, Italy saved more than 160,000 would-be migrants from the sea, a quarter of whom were Syrians. On Thursday, Italy discovered 360 refugees on the abandoned ghost ship “Ezadeen,” most of whom were Syrians.

Experts are expecting Europe’s population to grow through the increasing influx of refugees, as war in Syria and Iraq drives ever more people to flee their homelands. That will only increase as immediate neighbors to conflict zones such as Lebanon tighten their own restrictions on refugees. According to the BBC, Syrians refugees starting today will have to obtain a visa first before entering Lebanon.

Lebanon is already host to more than a million Syrian refugees.

“Germany has been outstanding in its response.”

António Guterres, U.N. High Comissioner for Refugees

But according to the UNHCR, the greatest number of refugees in the world are Syrians who are on the run in their own country — an estimated 6.5 million.

Europe is now battling over how many refugees each E.U. country will take in. With Germany and Sweden leading in accepting refugees, the question remains how other E.U. countries will step in and open their doors.

“If every country in Europe would do what we are already doing, much would be achieved,” Armin Schuster, a Christian Democratic Union domestic expert told Handelsblatt.

For years, the European Union has tried to prevent human trafficking but has been thwarted by the collapse of governments in countries such as Libya. Without state control, it is easy to exploit refugees for often-perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.

António Guterres, the high commissioner for U.N. Refugees, told Handelsblatt that the international community shared blame for failing to come up with a coordinated response to the problem. “We live in a world where insecurity and impunity are the determining factors of our time,” Mr. Guterres said.


Refugees in Europe-01


Mr. Guterres said that countries such as Germany, which are facing labor shortages as their populations age, should actively seek out new immigrants as a solution to their own domestic growth problems.

“People should view this situation not as a threat but as a potential bonus,” Mr. Guterres said.

video: Angelina Jolie interviews Syrian refugees.

Till Hoppe has been an editor with Handelsblatt since 2008, and currently covers foreign policy out of Berlin. Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. Jan Dirk Herbermann is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Switzerland, covering the United Nations.  Sarah Mewes is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition and contributed to this article. To contact the authors: and

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