Business as Usual

The horrors of Europe’s migrant crisis are just another part of the new global economy.

Syrian migrants wait on a dock to board on the Eleftherios Veniz
Syrian migrants wait on a dock to board the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry to be transported to mainland Greece on Aug. 23, 2015, at the port of Mytilene, on Lesbos island.

Photo by Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty Images

A dead little boy washed up on a beach. Hundreds of people drowned in a sea crossing. Seventy-one left to rot in a truck on the side of the road. We read these stories from the migration crisis shaking Europe, and we feel sick. We need to blame somebody. The president of the European Union says it’s the smugglers. “Murderers,” he calls them.

That’s a morally satisfying verdict. But it doesn’t begin to explain what’s happening in Europe. If you want to understand the crisis in a way that helps us do something about it, look at the logo on the side of that forsaken truck in Austria. The logo belongs to a chicken company. The people in that truck died in an unventilated cargo hold, on a vehicle designed to carry frozen meat.

The smuggling of migrants, like the smuggling of goods, is a business. What we’re seeing in Europe isn’t diabolical evil. It’s what happens when human beings are treated like illicit cargo. They’re hidden, packed tightly, transported as cheaply as possible, and abandoned in a pinch. It’s pure cold-blooded rationality, and that’s what makes it susceptible to intervention. To curtail smuggling, you have to understand it, and manipulate it, as a financial enterprise.

The flood of migrants into Europe is just another stage of economic globalization. Today, information and images circle the world in a flash. Capital flows across borders toward cheap labor. Goods find their way to countries with disposable income. And increasingly, people who hate where they live, whether for economic or political reasons, can find out where they’d be better off and how to get there. Websites and social networks tell you which country has the best government benefits, which borders you’ll have to cross, and what it’ll cost you. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a human trafficking expert quoted in the Washington Post, “You’re never more than two conversations away from someone who can get you to Europe.”

The surging demand for transit to Europe has made smuggling a seller’s market. In the past few weeks, the price of a car ride from Belgrade, Serbia, to the country’s border with Hungary—a major gateway for Middle Eastern refugees heading to Germany—has soared. The desperation of Syrians, Afghans, West Africans, and other people to escape the misery of their countries is so great, and the lure of a better life in Northern Europe is so strong, that even well-known horrors—drownings in the Mediterranean, imprisonment in trucks, corpses in the desert—have failed to stem the tide. That’s why, even where the price of transit has gone up, the service has worsened.

Smugglers, like any other travel industry, offer various price points. For $10,000 or more, you can fly directly to Germany or Sweden. For slightly less, you can take a yacht across the Mediterranean or perhaps stay in a nice hotel on your way north. And, crucially, you can deposit your payment in an account that the smugglers can’t access till you arrive safely at the other end.

If you don’t have that kind of money, you get cut-rate service. Instead of a seaworthy boat, you have to cross from Turkey to Greece in an inflatable dinghy with plastic paddles. You can buy life jackets, but they’re extra, so people who have to settle for this class of service generally skip them. On a big boat, the first-class migrants ride on the deck. The economy migrants ride below, in the hold. If the boat capsizes—or when something else goes wrong, such as fumes from the fuel supply, which asphyxiated more than 40 people in a single incident last month—the people in the hold are the ones most likely to die.

If you’re a smuggler, you can’t get as much money from a poor migrant as you can from a wealthy one. But you can make it up in volume. That’s why 71 people were crammed into the back of that truck in Austria. It’s why smugglers pack 70 people onto a 16-foot boat, nine people into a station wagon, and three onto a jet ski. If passengers die, the smuggler still gets paid, because economy migrants, particularly West Africans, have to shell out up front.

There are stories of depraved indifference, cruelty, and sex trafficking. But what’s killing many of these migrants isn’t ruthlessness. It’s cluelessness. Amateurs and petty criminals who used to smuggle goods are now smuggling people, and they don’t understand the differences. Fishermen are moonlighting as overloaded ferries. Vans that used to carry cigarettes are now carrying migrants. Networks that used to smuggle drugs on jet skis are still using jet skis, but now they’re packing humans alongside the drugs. Smugglers are hiding people anywhere they can: in truck trailers, car trunks, even suitcases. In Libya, 85 Eritreans were found in a 3-foot-high space inside a truckload of bricks that could have crushed them.

You can use these tricks to hide dope. But you can’t use them safely with people, and many of the smugglers seem to be learning this the hard way. That may have been what happened in Austria. According to Spiegel, the truck’s operators had never used it before. It was a meat truck, not a people truck, so it had no side ventilation. Given the number of people and the space into which they were packed, they had only about an hour’s worth of oxygen. They died, in all likelihood, because they weren’t merchandise, and because nobody did the math.

Read other stories, and you’ll see the same tragedy again and again: people stashed in compartments that were never designed for them. Fifty migrants asphyxiated in the cargo hold of a boat. Thirty-four packed into a van in which they could barely breathe. Eighty-six in a single truck. Another 50 trapped in a minibus. Twenty-six found in another truck in Austria, including three kids in danger of dying from dehydration. Another 24 found in a sealed cargo hold that had less than an hour’s worth of oxygen. And we have no idea how many have died undiscovered. Not every driver who smells something bad in his rig leaves it on the side of the road.

Once you understand the crisis this way—as a black market in which humans are treated like goods—the practical steps become obvious. Step One is to drive down demand for emigration to Europe, by making life more bearable and hopeful in the countries people are fleeing. That means bolstering economies in West Africa, negotiating some kind of peace in Syria, and doing more to help people in refugee camps. If they can’t stand life there, they’ll find a way to go elsewhere.

Step Two is to shrink the supply of goodies migrants can expect on arrival. A refugee who made it to Sweden tells the New York Times that Eritreans who talk to him about coming north ask specifically about the allowance he gets from the Swedish government. He says he wanted to reach Scandinavia because, among other things, migrants know that it offers nice welfare benefits. In fact, he originally aimed for Norway because its cash payments were even higher. The Times story outlines other benefits, such as full rent subsidies in Denmark. To discourage further migration, Denmark is now buying ads in Lebanon to warn people that it has toughened its immigration policies and has halved its welfare benefits. You may think this is cruel. But if it alters the balance of supply and demand in the smuggling market, it could save lives.

Step Three is to open the market’s choke points. Many of the people who die on the way to or through Europe aren’t economic migrants. They’re political refugees. They ought to be able to travel in broad daylight, not in the backs of trucks or in overloaded dinghies at night. But they’re afraid of being caught, because under European rules, they have to stop and apply for asylum in the first country they reach—and they want that country to be Germany or Sweden, not Italy or Hungary. If Europe wants to be a union, it owes these people an asylum policy that allows them to cross the borders of its member states. That way, Germany can be more generous than Hungary. And nobody has to ride the highway between them in the back of a chicken truck.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the European migrant crisis.

Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.