Smugglers Sneak Immigrants Through Europe's Back Door

In a spartan Red Cross shelter in Budapest, Habibi Abdul Mageed's Afghan compatriots still call him "The General."

A career army officer with beefy forearms and neatly combed black hair, Mr. Mageed fled his war-torn homeland for Pakistan in 1992. But he feared agents of Afghanistan's mujahideen, or holy warriors, would hunt down and execute him, his wife, and their five young children. So he shelled out his entire savings of $15,000 to be smuggled with his family into Germany.

But truck caravan was intercepted by Hungarian police last September near the Austrian border. Today Mageed and his family are trapped in legal limbo - Hungary doesn't want them, but it is bound by international humanitarian law not to deport them home.

If he had the cash, the former general would try once again to be smuggled into Western Europe.

Customers like the Mageeds fuel what has become a global, multibillion-dollar industry - trafficking in human cargo. And nowhere is business more brisk than in Central Europe where immigrants from the Asian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa are funneled into Western Europe via the same cross-border networks that deliver drugs and stolen cars.

The business of people smuggling, while it reaps huge profits, is also fraught with peril: In the past two years, 34 illegal aliens have died crossing Hungary.

Yet this business promises to become even more lucrative and dangerous. As Western Europe rolls up the welcome mat to asylum seekers and economic migrants,it will likely boost the demand for smuggler's services.

"We have so many people on Europe's doorstep willing to move where their bread will be better buttered," says Philippe LaBreveux, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Budapest.

It is impossible to pinpoint precisely how many have illegally migrated into Western Europe this decade. But from 1993 to 1994, roughly 135,000 migrants illegally crossed Hungary, according to the International Organization for Migration. The IOM estimates 30 percent of them had employed smugglers.

Even a string of tragedies has failed to stem the flow.

In May, eight ethnic Albanians from Serbia drowned while crossing the Danube River from Hungary to Slovakia on their way to Germany. Eight Turks - including a woman and her eight-year-old son - died near the same spot two years ago when their dinghy capsized.

Last summer, 18 Sri Lankans perished in a sealed truck container along a Hungarian highway when temperatures inside the aluminum box soared to 140 degrees F. Four Bulgarians are on trial in Sofia for transporting the Sri Lankans, then abandoning the vehicle.

The demand for cheap labor, which rose sharply during the economic boom of the 1980s, has led to an increase in illegal migration into Western Europe. Germany alone reportedly employs 500,000 illegal workers in its construction industry. And since the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain was first opened six years ago, migrants have enjoyed even greater access to the West.

A change of attitude in Europe

But today, the tide is turning.

Wheezing welfare systems and widespread economic insecurity have sparked an anti-immigrant backlash across Europe. Bearing the brunt are refugees like Mageed, who have escaped political, religious, or ethnic persecution in their homeland.

Europe's xenophobes conveniently lump these refugees together with the predominant group of migrants, the "irregular movers," the dispossessed who cross borders because they cannot eke out a living back home or merely seek better jobs and social benefits.

Afghans are a prime example of the blurred distinction between refugees and migrants. According to the UNHCR, over the past decade nearly half of Afghanistan's 16 million people have claimed asylum outside its borders. On average, 600 refugees from Afghanistan file for asylum in Germany each month.

Close to 2 million have refugee status in so-called "safe" countries like neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and in Saudi Arabia. But once Afghans trek farther west, outside that first safe country, they're considered economic migrants and often denied protection by the UNHCR.

The agency prefers to keep refugees close to their homeland - and to repatriate them when it's safe - rather than unfairly burden affluent countries.

"If we allowed them [in]... there'd be more Kurds in Sweden than Swedes," Mr. LaBreveux says.

To ensure that doesn't happen in Germany, the German Constitutional Court in May upheld the return of illegal aliens to the safe countries they arrived from.

Refugee and migrant agencies expect the verdict to trigger a domino effect, whereby, say, an Iraqi is passed from Germany to Austria to Hungary to Romania and so on. At the same time, such measures are expected to lead to more daring attempts at infiltration. "Illegal immigrants will continue to reach the West somehow; if not to the left, then to the right, if not up, then down," says Tamas Kiss, a spokesman for the International Center for Migration Policy Development in Vienna. "And it won't hinder the traffickers, because the demand is still there." Human trafficking worldwide, he notes, has grossed $5 million to $7 million since 1990.

The majority of international smuggling networks are highly sophisticated, run mafia-style by families and loyal friends. In Central Europe they often cater to their own people: an Egyptian network for Egyptians, a Mongolian for Mongolians. The syndicates co-exist peacefully, using their own smuggling channels, according to the region's law-enforcement officers.

Detection is difficult. Only a handful of key players - strategically placed along the smuggling route - are privy to network operations. Up to 200 "mules" may handle transportation and other grunt work. They know nothing more than their own job, so the arrest of one will not bring down the entire network.

A journey typically begins in trafficking hubs like Islamabad, Pakistan; Istanbul; or Moscow. A network's point man gauges how much money can be extracted from each client - fees range from $1,000 to $10,000 a head. (Chinese reportedly pay up to $30,000 each to be smuggled into North America.)

Once a group is assembled and the cost negotiated, it can take between two months and two years to obtain fake documents and plan a smuggling route aboard buses, trucks, and trains. Aided by well-placed bribes, immigrants travel virtually unmolested through the former Soviet republics and on to Bulgaria and Romania.

Some wealthy Afghans fly directly from Islamabad to Moscow. Africans and Arabs either curl through the Middle East until they hit Istanbul or stow away in ships crossing the Mediterranean, or even the Baltic Sea.

But as the human cargo approaches Austria, on the European Union's frontier, passage becomes more tricky. While Western Europeans enjoy unfettered movement within the EU, they are quietly erecting what some label a second Iron Curtain to enclose their turf.

And they call on EU members-in-waiting like Hungary to defend it.

Gateway to the West

Located in the heart of Europe, Hungary is the leading transit country for smugglers and a runner-up choice for asylum seekers who can't make it to the West. But there's little incentive for the country to crack down on the migratory herds. It's expensive and difficult to deport aliens who lack identification if it's not known where they came from. Instead, they usually wind up staying, which is politically unpopular. Anti-foreigner sentiment runs high in Budapest; immigrants are blamed for the loss of low-wage jobs and rising gang-related street crime.

"The richer countries aren't taking people in, so why would they expect [us] to?" says Gabor Vilagosi, state secretary of the Hungarian Interior Ministry. "If [illegal migrants] can't go farther West, they'll remain here. And our economy is not in a position to support them."

Such a view lends credibility to the claim by some that Hungary turns a blind eye to most human trafficking, allowing cargo to slip through the border uneventfully. The Hungarian Border Patrol itself concedes that each year a couple of guards are arrested for accepting bribes.

"The government doesn't want to be burdened with Afghan freedom fighters, so it's better that they disappear and become Germany's problem," says Ferenc Koszeg, executive director of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and a member of parliament.

The buck-passing hasn't gone unnoticed. Both Germany and Austria have pressured Hungary to shore up its porous borders, particularly the eastern frontier with Romania and Ukraine.

But Budapest expects financial and technical assistance in return. The Eastern Europeans, for example, cannot afford the heat-detecting, infrared surveillance systems found in the West.

Migration and law-enforcement experts from throughout the region convened in Budapest in March to discuss how to combat illegal migration. At their third annual workshop, they spoke of the need for countries to harmonize asylum legislation, share intelligence, and impose stiffer penalties. In Hungary, smugglers are jailed for two months, fined a few thousand dollars, and deported. They routinely sneak back in.

While the root cause of illegal emigration from developing countries - stifling political, economic, or social climates - remains, it appears that no legal measure can keep out those in search of what others take for granted.

"As long as there's war in my country, I won't go back," says Mageed, the former Afghan general. "I don't care where I live, as long as we can at least live comfortably and my children can get an education."

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