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Last Updated: Monday, 21 July, 2003, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Asylum questions: What about organised crime?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

1991: Albanian migrants at the Italian port of Brindisi
1991: Albanian migrants at the Italian port of Brindisi
Asylum is often talked about in the same breath as organised crime. In the fifth of our questions on asylum we look at how criminals are dictating what happens with those seeking sanctuary.

This summer, British police had a major success against organised crime and its links to illegal immigration.

A three-month investigation led Scotland Yard to seize 65 people connected with the illegal trafficking or smuggling of people across Europe.

In the last decade organised crime has taken an increasing interest in people moving.

It is a complex world of tight-knit organisations and loosely formed alliances playing high stakes with lives for potentially enormous profits.

So how do people fleeing persecution become involved in organised crime?

Tighter controls

Over the past decade, industrialised nations have tightened immigration and restricted the means of seeking asylum. Getting to places of safety is increasingly difficult.

At the same time, organised gangs quickly spotted that people wanted to move, be it for asylum, economic reasons or a mixture of both - and they began developing routes across the east-west borders previously closed by the Cold War.

Hamid saw himself as a Robin Hood character who, far from harming anyone, allowed people a safe passage to opportunities they would never otherwise have been able to enjoy
A smuggler's story

An asylum seeker will very often begin to flee by destroying their documents.

They would then seek agents representing smugglers (relatively easily to find in unstable nations) who pass the client on to smugglers.

Travel can take anything from a few days, if by air, to an entire season. In Asia, a well-known smuggling route skirts the Caucuses and takes migrants on foot over mountains in eastern Turkey.

Sometimes they will go overland into central Europe, others will be taken by boat.

The Otranto Channel, the slip of the Adriatic Sea between Albania and Italy, has witnessed hundreds of deaths over the last decade as smugglers have overloaded dangerous vessels.

The case of the 58 Chinese men and women found suffocated in a lorry at Dover in 200 shows that those risks exist right up until the last moment before arrival.

Sangatte, the now-closed refugee centre near Calais, became a key element of the route by virtue of its position.

Research at the centre found that almost all those interviewed had used people-smugglers to ease their passage, paying an average of $6,000 up front to get as far as northern France.

Simply put, the United Nation's refugee agency says smuggling is "a complicating feature" as it blurs the identities of economic migrants and asylum seekers.

"With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees are turning to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and financial costs involved," said its recent study.

"Asylum seekers who resort to human smugglers seriously compromise their claims in the eyes of many states."

Legal changes

So what is the impact of all of this on the UK? Across Europe government agree that illegal immigration is a security issue.

Mass migration has brought with it a whole new range and a whole new type of crime, from the Nigerian fraudster, to the eastern European who deals in drugs and prostitution to the Jamaican concentration on drug dealing
Chris Fox, Acpo

The government is pledged to working towards a common EU asylum policy and has urged its neighbours to do more to combat smuggling.

Here, the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act distinguished for the first time between different types of migration crime by creating a specific offence of human trafficking for prostitution.

This is an increasingly worrying problem with one organisation estimating 500,000 women and girls are trafficked in to Europe every year.

Nevertheless, the legal change has partially satisfied critics who say that the legal landscape has not helped police target those causing the most misery.

Controversial comments

Inside the UK, Chris Fox, president of the ACPO, the UK's top police officers' association, sparked controversy earlier in 2003 when he declared "mass migration had introduced a whole new range and a whole new type of crime".

Yet in its evidence to a Lords committee last year, Acpo said "immigrants are no more likely to be offenders than members of the host population".

The then junior Home Office minister Lord Filkin added: "What evidence we do have does not illustrate that there is a major criminal problem from the illegal immigrants themselves".

In the "vast majority of cases, but not all", he said, they simply wanted to work and would keep a low profile to ensure they could.

So while the migrant looking for work may not consider what they have done as criminal, the process can put them in the hands of such people who will ensure they get their every last penny.


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