When it comes to crime and migration, governments and international institutions pay a lot of attention to the involvement of organized criminal organizations in transporting and smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.
Even so, the evidence suggests that there are no centralized crime syndicates operating across the major smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. Rather, smuggling takes place through “flexible and adaptive networks” comprised of small criminal groups who enter into arrangements for short periods of time before dissolving and reconfiguring themselves.
By contrast, there is little official information on the interaction between organized crime and migrants once they arrive at destination countries, even though it seems that the role of organized crime is much more centralized at that stage.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the experiences of migrants in Sicily and southern Italy. It is a region heavily affected by the migrant crisis; in 2015 and 2016 a total of 400,000 migrants landed in Sicily, an island with a population of just 5 million. It also has a notoriously fraught history of organized crime.
The Sicilian mafia, the Cosa Nostra, seized the opportunity to enrich themselves and further entrench their influence. With the establishment of refugee camps throughout the island and mainland, the Cosa Nostra bribed officials and secured contracts to manage the accommodation of refugees. This allows them to profit from government subsidies which amount to around $37.50 per immigrant per day, a rapidly growing multi-million dollar business. This creates a perverse incentive that works against encamped refugees: “The interest is to open as many [camps] as possible and keep the migrants there. The longer they keep them, the more money they bring in,” one Sicilian senator told the Washington Post.
“The interest is to open as many [camps] as possible and keep the migrants there. The longer they keep them, the more money they bring in.”
Similarly, the Cosa Nostra has bribed and coerced officials in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, to offer tenders to mafia-run companies. These companies provide goods and services to refugee camps at much cheaper rates than the legitimate services for which the government has budgeted. As the mafia pockets the difference between the government funds and the cheaper mafia-affiliated services that are actually utilized, refugees and migrants bear the brunt of the corruption.
The Cosa Nostra has not only found ways to benefit monetarily from the migrants, it has also integrated migrants into mafia-related criminal enterprises in Sicily. This exposes migrants to vulnerability on two fronts: from the mafia and from local authorities. In order to pay for their trans-Mediterranean journeys, young women are often forced into prostitution.
by Hayden Ford