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'Travel Agents Of Death' Earn Billions Off Migrants, Organization Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's offensive supporting Syria's government has managed to do what would have seemed impossible before. It has made life even more dangerous for many Syrians. In a moment, we'll hear from people there increasingly under attack.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

First though, the crisis caused by those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. This week, European officials started cracking down on a key element of its migrant crisis, smugglers. Military vessels will now stop and search boats suspected of being used to carry migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. There are also calls for using military force against smugglers. William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration, and he joined us to talk about those efforts against smuggling. Good morning.

WILLIAM LACY SWING: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Your group just reported to the U.N. that this year has already brought a record half a million migrants to Europe, mostly people who've made a very hazardous journey. What have smugglers gotten out of this?

SWING: Well, I think for the year it's hard to calculate, but I can tell you that over the years they earn an excess of $30 billion annually. That brings them in third behind the international trafficking and drugs and guns. It's probably easier for them to do because they have a total disregard for human life. They are really the travel agents of death.

MONTAGNE: Is there such a thing as a typical smuggling operation?

SWING: Well, you've had several kinds of operations. You remember the ghost ships that they tried to send in to Italy, in which they simply abandoned the ship and left it to go ashore without any guidance at all from a captain. They bought that ship for probably less than $200,000 and made several million on it. They also have these rubber rafts, these very small dinghies. They put too many people on them. There's no chance they're going to make it to shore. The first wake-up call came in October 2013, when 368 migrants died just off the shores of Lampedusa. And if you see that many coffins draped in white on a sandy beach, it will focus your mind on how criminal these people are. And unfortunately, we in the international community have really not done a very good job in arresting what I would call the big fish.

MONTAGNE: You would think some of these smugglers are functionally entrepreneurs. But how much of this is controlled by criminal enterprises, smuggling rings?

SWING: Well, I think a lot of it is - it is largely linked into the international criminal rings and networks. Of course, with our strict visa laws and building walls and trying to keep people out, we are basically subsidizing the smuggling trade because we're pushing them into the arms of the smugglers. And this needs to change.

MONTAGNE: A recent EU report makes the case for the use of force against smugglers. And that would include boarding suspected smuggling ships, airstrikes on boats, presumably that don't have refugees in them, troops in Libya - various ways in which to deal with this by force. How well would that work? And what is the downside to that?

SWING: I think the downside would be the risk that it poses for migrants themselves. If there were such a thing as humanitarian visas or humanitarian border management, where people in danger or fleeing abject poverty - if there were a way in which they could be allowed into a country, given temporary protective status, that would then finish the market for the smugglers. And that, I think, is part of the approach that the EU and we are talking about. If there is another element that you can do that involves some force against the smugglers that doesn't endanger migrants' lives, that might be part of it. But I think we are very skeptical about that.

MONTAGNE: William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration. Thank you very much for joining us.

SWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.