We can understand a lot about the mechanics of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis — in particular the routes refugees are taking as they flee war and misery in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa — by looking at the patterns of flow that carry other “illicit” traffic into the heart of the European Union, specifically narcotics.
For the last several years now my colleague Byungwon Woo and I have been analyzing the patterns of international narcotics trafficking, particularly the routes and networks of transit states that link producers to consumers. The first article to grow out of this research was published last year. A second piece is currently under review.
Even a cursory glance at maps, like the one at right, diagramming the movements that make up the refugee crisis, show that the routes refugees are following are virtually identical to those used by narcotics traffickers.
Thus we can see the Balkan Route, which for decades has been used to bring heroin, opium, hashish, and other narcotics from Central Asia into the lucrative consumer markets of Central and Western Europe, is now also being used to move refugees to their preferred destinations in places like Austria and Germany.
Likewise we see refugees moving into Southern Europe following the same routes across the Mediterranean from North Africa that Algerian and Moroccan cannabis traffickers have long leveraged.
Just as with illicit narcotics, Europe’s system of open borders, once you manage to make it inside, facilitates the flow of people across national boundaries as easily as it does heroin or cannabis. As NPR noted in its reporting this morning, this puts the burden squarely on those states on the periphery of Europe to stem the human tide.
Which explains why more and more of the countries on the periphery, like Hungary, are moving aggressively to build fences along their borders to block refugees (Greece did so in 2012) and why others, like Macedonia, are employing heavy crackdowns by police to the same effect. But again, as with narcotics trafficking, there’s a natural elasticity in the routes that refugees are taking. Analysts have described drug smuggling as akin to a balloon: when you squeeze it in one place it bulges elsewhere.
The same is true with the movement of refugees. The New York Times illustrates this very effectively, showing how the closing of safer routes into Europe have driven refugees into more and more dangerous journeys.
This raises one more point of comparison with the international trade in narcotics. As it has become more and more difficult for refugees to reach Europe legally, human traffickers have stepped in to meet the demand of desperate people. And make no mistake, this is a lucrative trade, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion a year, a figure which likely understates the real value given the exponential increase in human traffic into Europe this year. Traffickers currently charge about $3,000 per person for the arduous trip from the war zones of Syria to the safety of Germany.
Recognizing the parallels between the movement of people in Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and the movement of drugs in the international narcotics trade also points us to the recognition that complex transnational problems require coordinated transnational action to have any meaningful impact. That kind of coordination has been lacking for decades on the narcotics front. And as we’ve come to see, there is so far little collective political will in Europe to manage this new crisis.