News/Europe: A Single Market In Crime

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Subject: News/Europe: A Single Market In Crime
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Sat Oct 16 1999 - 19:40:21 EDT

A Single Market In Crime
The Economist, October 16-22, 1999

The massive scale of illegal immigration, the rise of cross-border crime
and increasingly porous frontiers mean that representatives of European
Union governments meeting this week in Finland have a huge task ahead of them

THREE young men, wearing shorts, dark glasses and broad grins, pose proudly
beside the cherry-red speedboat for a photograph. Each has one knee raised
and a foot planted triumphantly upon one of the boat’s three huge
250-horse-power engines, like jubilant fishermen with their catch. Except
that this 10-metre (33-foot) craft is the prize of no amateur sport: the
three men are off-duty Italian policemen, showing off the boat they seized
the previous night after chasing a smuggler and his cargo of 35 illegal
immigrants on their way from Albania to the Italian coast.

It had been a pretty average shift for a calm, still, autumn night. Between
them, the police, the navy and the coastguards had picked up about 100
illegals off a 55km (35-mile) stretch of the coast north of Otranto, a
small port in Apulia near the southern tip of Italy and the narrowest point
of the Adriatic Sea: on a clear day here, you can see the Albanian
mountains across the 70km channel. A mix of Albanians, Kurds from Turkey
and Iraq, Bengalis, Pakistanis and Kosovars had been stashed inside the
tiny wooden hold of this boat, the hatch firmly closed.

In order to seize the vessel, explains one of the young policemen with
thinly disguised relish, they had crashed into it while it was trying to
speed away. They had had no hesitation in doing this because the helmsman,
an Albanian smuggler, had already dumped his cargo in the sea. This lot had
been rescued by the coastguards; many others, less fortunate, simply drown.
The smuggler himself had leapt overboard, but was hauled out of the water
and, with his vessel, taken back to Otranto–to much admiration, and the
triumphant photo session, next day.

Every night, a flotilla of Italian ships and power-boats speed up and down
the coast, and to and from the bases they have now established, with
Albanian government permission, in Albania itself. Every night, they find
at least one boatload, sometimes up to 20 of them, each with a cargo of
30-odd smuggled people; sometimes, there are also drugs or automatic
weapons stashed inside. In the eight months to the end of August, 21,000
illegals had been picked up along this short stretch of the coast alone,
compared with 19,957 in the whole of the previous year.

For every person caught, reckons Captain Enrico Macri, the commander of the
Otranto coastguards, another two or three will have waded ashore and
slipped in undetected. And for every person shuttled across the sea,
whether delivered safely or not, the smuggler pockets at least 1m lire
($540). With revenues like this, and using boats worth some 100m lire each,
the trafficking of human beings, according to Willy Bruggeman, a deputy
director of Europol, “is getting as profitable for criminal groups to deal
in as other crimes such as drugs.”

In the past couple of years, the traditional range of contraband smuggled
by organised criminals across borders in Europe–drugs, guns, stolen
cars–has expanded to include human beings. Often, the same mafia rings deal
in all these, and money-laundering. Whereas a few years ago organised
criminals in cities like Antwerp and London came chiefly from countries
such as Nigeria or Colombia, says Europol, the business now is as likely to
be run by Russians, Albanians or Yugoslavs. It is the Russian mafia these
days that is buying up property on the Spanish Costa del Sol with the

The fastest-growing trade is in human beings. A conservative estimate by
Jonas Widgren, of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development
in Vienna, reckons that 400,000 people are smuggled into the European Union
each year; others suggest that is simply the number of girls brought into
the EU and forced into prostitution. Prostitutes from Russia, Ukraine,
Belarus and Moldova–and more recently from Kosovo and Albania–are
trafficked to Berlin, London, Brussels, Milan and Amsterdam. Most of them
are women under the age of 25, often lured with false promises of jobs as
“dancers”, or abducted and sold for as little as $1,000, then beaten and
forced to work for local pimps. An increasing number these days are young
boys. The networks of people-smugglers reach from the highly organised
Russian and Ukrainian rings to the smaller Albanian and Yugoslav cells.

Why they come

The rocky stretch of the Italian coastline near Otranto, often referred to
as the “soft underbelly of the European Union”, exposes the contradictions
and complexities of the EU’s effort to seal its outer border against
anything it does not want–whether guns, contraband cigarettes, cannabis,
cocaine or people seeking a better life–while at the same time ridding its
citizens inside of many of their everyday restrictions. One reason this bit
of the border is so popular is its proximity to the war-battered Balkans
across the sea. But it is also no coincidence that last year, when the
numbers seized leapt so dramatically, Italy implemented the Schengen
agreement (named after a Luxembourg border town), which dissolves the
borders between its full members, and is now part of EU law.

Italy had long been a magnet, thanks to its geographical position, long
coastline and famously lax approach to illegal immigration: it has a habit
of granting mass sanatoria, or amnesties, every so often, and even the
police admit that expulsion orders are seldom enforced. But, nowadays, once
illegals are inside Italy, they face no more border checks throughout most
of the rest of the EU.

The European project to create a single market, in which its citizens can
move themselves, their money, goods and services freely around the Union,
has dramatically altered the pattern of cross-border crime in Europe. By
lifting internal barriers–at least between the full Schengen members, which
do not include Britain and Ireland, nor, though it has at least signed the
convention, Greece–the EU’s members have pushed their border controls to
the outer rim of the Union. By, in turn, tightening up that periphery, they
have driven certain cross-border activities underground, sometimes sending
even genuine refugees into the hands of criminals, who now traffic them for
profit alongside illegal migrants. And, by creating a single internal
market, Europe has also created for itself a new single market in crime.

Justice across borders

This tangled knot of problems will be discussed when the heads of the EU’s
15 governments meet on October 15th and 16th in the Finnish town of Tampere
for their first summit devoted exclusively to “justice and home affairs”.
They will consider three subjects: immigration and asylum; the fight
against cross-border crime; and the birth of a “European judicial space”.
All this is designed to create “an area of freedom, security and justice”.

Though governments will dress up their discussion in grand declarations,
much of what they will be saying is not new. Under the Amsterdam treaty, in
effect since May, and an “action plan” agreed on last year in Vienna, the
EU’s governments have already committed themselves to the creation of a
common judicial area. What is new, however, is the political will to push,
promote and publicise what could turn out to be the boldest project towards
European integration since the launch of the single currency.

Part of the idea is that Europeans, who in the words of Tarja Halonen, the
Finnish foreign minister, “increasingly marry, work, study, buy and sell
goods and services, and invest or borrow money, across their national
borders”, should be able to seek justice simply and efficiently from any
other EU country. The purpose is to protect Europeans from discrepancies in
the law regarding, for example, the custody of children after divorce. But
an even more pressing motivation is to fight organised cross-border crime.

Already, EU countries rely on each other for protection and security. Under
Schengen, Germans must trust Italians to police the Italian stretch of the
EU’s borders; each Schengen member trusts the others when it comes to
issuing visas to outsiders. The police are now allowed to chase a suspect
caught committing a crime across a national frontier. In small ways, EU
countries have also begun to recognise infringements committed in each
other’s countries: a driving-licence ban, for instance, in any EU country
must now be enforced in any other.

This next project would take these principles further. At the least, it
would mean stripping out a procedural layer that at present enables one
member’s courts to interpret a decision made by any other’s before it is
acted on. If the German police, for instance, want to seize the assets held
by suspected criminals in Belgium, or to hold up a shipment of drugs they
suspect are about to arrive there, they must first wait to get approval
through a Belgian court. For organised crime, where the police need to move
fast and where the criminal web reaches across borders, valuable time is
wasted in following current rules, and more nimble criminals slip through
the net.

Broadly speaking, Europeans are divided into those (like the British) who
are keen simply on better co-operation within the current framework, and
those (like the Italians, Belgians and Dutch) who would like fuller
harmonisation. Interior ministries are also generally cooler about
integration than are justice ministries. Elizabeth Guigou, the French
justice minister, is a keen advocate of the creation not only of a European
prosecutor’s office but of a European federal court of judges to try cases
that cross borders. The French interior ministry is distinctly icy.

For the moment, ideas about full harmonisation remain only a distant
prospect. The Union’s members not only have different criminal codes, but
varying procedures too. Besides the different judicial traditions in the 15
EU countries, there are also no fewer than 120 police forces and dozens of
separate legal jurisdictions, according to Ben Hall, research director at
the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank in London. Harmonising these
systems, laws and procedures into a single body of law, even were it
politically desirable, would be technically nightmarish.

In the short run, however, EU governments are nonetheless committed to
making cross-border European justice mean something. A practical way to do
this, according to the British government, would be “to develop a regime
where each state recognised as valid the decisions of another member
state’s judicial authorities...even though the decision has been taken
under different laws and rules.” At present, an offence must be exactly the
same in each country if a court in one is to comply with a request for,
say, an order to seize assets in another. The idea now would be to
align–“approximate”, in Euro-jargon–crimes, as well as judicial decisions
taken before conviction, such as arrests, summonses to witnesses, orders
for evidence or bail, warrants for search and seizure, and orders for the
freezing of assets.

To help fight cross-border crime, one popular idea is to issue
“Euro-warrants” for arrest. These would be issued by a court in one EU
country but could be acted on by the police in another without first having
to await an order from the court in the first country. Europol, now up and
running and supposed to deal with EU cross-border organised crime, would
like to go even further and set up a “Euro-just”. Along the same lines as
Europol, this would be a pool of magistrates from the EU’s 15 countries,
available 24 hours a day to issue such a warrant. “If you have intelligence
on a drugs transit, and need to act quickly, it’s now impossible to reach a
magistrate in another country at 1am,” says one Europol officer.

The harmonisers may well get some of what they want. One idea, backed by
Romano Prodi, the head of the European Commission, is to set up a more
limited EU prosecutor’s office, to deal only with cases of fraud against
the EU budget. Another popular idea, long pushed by the commission, is to
criminalise across the EU the trafficking of human beings, which at present
carries just a feeble penalty in some countries. After all, EU members have
already agreed jointly to create the common offence of belonging to an
organised criminal group. They have also agreed to make extradition easier.
In the long run, a single European judicial area, as even the British
admit, could put an end to the need for extradition altogether.

Fortress Europe

Nestling among groves of olive and eucalyptus near Casalabate, not far from
the port of Brindisi, is the Centro Lorizzonte, one of two detention
centres for illegal immigrants in Italy’s south-east. Giuseppe Spedicato,
>from Movimondo, a voluntary group that runs the centre with only the
scantest government finance, prefers to call it a “reception” centre.
Though the police guard the building, it is still a home to those illegals
picked up on the coast, while they await their fate. Residents have painted
the walls of the yard with brightly coloured pictures. One, entitled
“Kosovo”, shows a house and a tank. A dusty patch serves as a football pitch.

It is hard to say whether these are the victims or the beneficiaries of the
trafficking in human beings. Smugglers now actively recruit “clients”.
Moreover, along with the 650 adults in the centre, mostly Kurds, now that
the rush from Kosovo has receded, there are 140 teenagers, almost all of
them boys sent by their families to seek a better life in the West. Even if
released, many would head north out of Italy. “There’s nothing for me at
home,” explains one 15-year-old Kosovar, in shorts and flip-flops, who
wants to make it to Germany. Down in the yard, below his dormitory, a crowd
of residents is jostling at the gate. Clasped in their hands are plastic
bags filled with their few possessions. Some have received asylum papers,
others expulsion orders to leave the country in 15 days. Will they go home?
“They will probably all head to Germany,” says Mr Spedicato wryly.

Organisations that work with refugees protest strongly at the link often
made between asylum-seeking, illegal immigration and crime. Now that the EU
has virtually halted all primary legal immigration except for purposes of
family unification, however, about the only ways into the Union are to slip
in or stay on clandestinely, or to try for asylum. Some of the thousands of
Slovaks, Romanians, Poles or even Russians on whom Berliners or Londoners
now rely to cut their hair, clean their houses or serve them coffee have
arrived legally on visas as students or au pairs, and stayed on illegally.

An untold number have crept in illegally in the first place, often with the
intention of staying only a few years to earn cash to send home, drawn–as
many generations of southern Europeans were long before Fortress Europe
threw up its walls–by the higher wages of the north-west. Legal papers may
be available periodically: France and Italy last year offered a mass
amnesty to tens of thousands of illegals. Others will try to get legal
papers as refugees.

The task for EU governments in Tampere is to find a balance between the
desire to tighten up against bogus applicants and the need to protect
genuine refugees and ensure that a common asylum policy guarantees minimum
standards of welfare, legal aid or the right to work across the EU. With so
many centre-left governments now in power across the Union, there is a
strong desire to ensure that traditional liberal values should not be
forsaken and that genuine refugees should be protected.

Even policy towards genuine refugees, however, causes bitter rows. Germany,
which receives a disproportionate share of asylum applications, frets about
“burden-sharing”. Along with Austria and the Netherlands, it has long
pressed for a way of spreading refugees more fairly, to great resistance
>from France, Spain and Britain. One way would be to put in place a common
application regime, in an effort to stop newcomers “shopping around” for
>the easiest way in or the best deal, in terms of welfare, housing and
benefits. Under the present rules, a refugee must apply for asylum in the
first EU country he arrives in. But many, like those who slip undetected
into Italy by sea, still wait to lodge applications until they have reached
a more attractive destination farther north.

Those who advocate a common regime–a similar standard of welfare for
asylum-seekers, for instance–say it would stop such shopping around, and
encourage applicants who arrive in southern Italy, say, to apply there and

However, research suggests that refugees, whether genuine or not, do not
seek the best deal, or head only to where the jobs are. They simply make
for where they have family or friends, or where the “travel agent” who
arranged for them to be smuggled happened to send them. A common asylum
policy, and some sharing of responsibility, especially at times of crisis
such as the Kosovo war, whether through a fund to spread the cost or via
physical redistribution, makes sense. But, thanks to existing ties, no
amount of harmonisation will stop migrants heading for the places they
already go to.

Which is why Germany is so exercised about the policing of the EU’s
borders. It has already spent much money and effort reinforcing its border
with Poland, which runs through forests and swamps, arming an increased
number of border guards with infra-red detectors. Moreover, because of the
proposed expansion of the Union to the east, Germany has been vigorously
helping the Poles, as well as other “fast-track” applicants in Central
Europe, to tighten up their own eastern borders. In five or six years’
time, Poland’s 1,000km border with Russia’s Kaliningrad outpost, Lithuania,
Belarus and Ukraine, much of it rough forest, will be a large part of the
EU’s eastern fringe. That is where the next worry about cross-border crime

Yet, no sooner is one EU external border semi-sealed than smugglers shift
their routes. Europol says that thanks to tightening in the “buffer
zone”–the Central European countries hoping to join the EU–the leaky points
have shifted, to the borders between Scandinavia and the Baltic states and
Russia, as well as to Italy and Spain. For as long as Europe is determined
to fortify its borders, and shut out economic migrants, it may manage to
keep the good guys out, but the bad will always find a way in.

Back in Otranto, the coastguards know they face a near-impossible task. The
Italian government has reinforced the numbers of boats on patrol, and sent
more policemen to the area. But, no sooner have they caught one lot of
illegals and put them on the boat back to Albania than another boat with
its pitiful human cargo hidden perilously inside will be on its way towards
the coast again. “It’s like torture every night,” says Captain Macri. “The
most awful thing is that you are talking about human lives: it’s a human

[To view the graphics associated with this article visit]

Melanie Orhant

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