The Rising Tide of Human Smuggling

THE recent landslide victory of California's Proposition 187 has helped catapult illegal immigration to the top of the national political agenda. But only scant attention is being focused on this decade's most disturbing immigration trend - the explosion in international human smuggling.

Sophisticated criminal organizations earn billions of dollars every year by smuggling hundreds of thousands of migrants across national boundaries. They are making human smuggling one of the most profitable enterprises today, affecting nearly every region of the world:

* In the United States, a primary destination for many smuggling operations, federal officials have recently cracked a multimillion-dollar ring in Seattle accused of smuggling 970 Indian, Pakistani, and other foreign nationals into the US since 1985. Authorities in New York have reportedly discovered a similar ring using fake documents produced in Thailand to smuggle Albanians into the US. And despite President Clinton's crackdown last summer, criminal syndicates continue to sneak tens of thousands of Chinese into the US, via Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean Basin.

* European officials are also alarmed by increased human smuggling in their region. Officials in Austria have recently discovered that their country is the major destination for smuggling networks originating in Asia and running through Russia and Eastern Europe. Last month, Spanish police discovered that syndicates were using the passports of the deceased to smuggle Chinese into their country. Meanwhile, Swedish authorities are trying to crack down on a Baltic Sea smuggling route that reportedly delivers Iranian and Iraqi immigrants through Moscow to Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania before finally reaching Sweden.

* In East Asia, Japan has been the favored target for smuggling syndicates. The Maritime Safety Agency has called for international action to counter the growing threat of human smuggling operations directed at Japan, allegedly masterminded by Chinese and Japanese criminal groups. In June, the Tokyo Immigration Bureau exposed an operation that had been smuggling Chinese first to Thailand and then Japan.

Widespread corruption among government officials, the revolution in both communications and transportation, and the worldwide growth of organized crime are all believed to be contributing to the rise of human smuggling. But no factor is perhaps more critical to this trade than the global surge in emigration.

Population growth, unemployment, and poverty in the developing world are spurring millions to seek a better life outside of their home country. The International Organization of Migration estimates there are roughly 125 million international migrants. And with global population expanding by about 90 million a year, that number is expected to soar. Simultaneously, however, antiimmigrant sentiment is rising worldwide. From Paris to Tokyo, Pretoria to Kuala Lumpur, governments around the world are clamping down on immigrants, legal and illegal. These moves, ironically, play into the hands of smugglers.

Aspiring migrants, confronted with new immigration restrictions and finding themselves unable to migrate by their own efforts, soon discover that they must enlist the services of professional smugglers to get them through. When the Czech Republic introduced tighter visa regulations last January, immigration authorities discovered that while the number of solo illegal migrants decreased, the number of smuggler-assisted migrants actually rose. A similar pattern has been detected along California's southern border, where ``Operation Gatekeeper'' has compelled increasing numbers of would-be migrants to seek out professional smugglers.

A migrant's decision to enlist a smuggler may also be motivated by other factors. While most smuggling operations provide basic navigational or escort services, large multinational organizations often feature a full range of services, such as providing fake passports and visas, lodging in ``transit'' countries, and even language lessons. Some operations even allow cash-strapped migrants to make ``down payments'' and pay off their balances by working in the country of destination.

THE boom in international human smuggling has also benefited from the fall of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. The decline of civil authority and rise of organized crime throughout the region provide an ideal environment for smugglers. Russian authorities report that their country is being used as a transit route for criminal syndicates seeking to funnel Asian and Middle Eastern migrants into Europe. Similarly, criminal organizations are actively using Eastern Europe as a base for smuggling operations directed at Western Europe and the United States. Romanian officials, for example, claim that tens of thousands of Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals have been smuggled through their country into Western Europe during the past four years.

Finally, the lack of a consistent and concerted international response has aided the smugglers' success. Fearing political repercussions, some governments have refrained from discussing the topic openly and only recently have international organizations begun to address the issue. Moreover, laws in most countries penalize drug smuggling far more severely than its human counterpart. For many gangs human smuggling - with its almost unlimited profit potential - has replaced drug trafficking as the enterprise of choice.

Human smuggling is likely to grow, presenting challenges to the sovereignty and security of all affected countries, including the United States. If Americans are as concerned about illegal immigration as polls seem to suggest, then this is the issue that should command their attention. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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