This is a piece by Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie in the Highliner. I recommend reading it in full, right down to the credits page, because while the story details human monstrosity in human suffering, it is also, aesthetically speaking, a beautifully designed platform and a beautifully presented multi-directional story.
Here, below, is the basic outline of the piece in a series of extracts. This is the version that is easier to gulp down during a quick tea-break. You can then sneak back to each original section at every successive break. Or screw the corporate schedule and read it all in one go, because this stuff needs to be read and discussed.
The biggest refugee crisis in recorded history has engulfed continents, swung elections and fueled the rise of nativism. It has also made a lot of people very, very rich. These are the stories of the CEOs, criminal masterminds, pencil-pushers and low-flying vultures who have figured out how to profit from global instability, also known as human suffering.
The migrant crisis has converted a tiny city in Niger into one of the continent’s most prominent and cruel smuggling hubs. Weapons, drugs, laundered money, hapless migrants, indentured prostitutes—they all pass through Agadez. And then the trouble radiates out from there.
In high season, an estimated 5,000 people from neighboring countries arrive in Agadez each week in the hopes of eventually making it to Europe. These people are housed in ghettos until they are stuffed onto trucks headed for Libya. But unbeknownst to the migrants or the drivers, some of the trucks are also loaded up with drugs and foreign currency. Once the drivers offload the migrants, drugs and money in Libya, their trucks are packed with fresh contraband for the return journey—usually weapons. After being sold in Agadez, these weapons will often end up in the hands of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Qaeda in Mali—the groups many of the migrants were fleeing from in the first place.
The trans-Saharan smuggling business grew wildly between 2013 and 2015. The final number shows how much it was estimated to be worth in 2015—in Libya alone. [At the time of reading, it was $323 million.]
The government has made some cursory attempts to crack down on all this misconduct, but mainly it just finds ways to benefit from it. Before leaving for Libya, smuggling vehicles are stopped by police who demand a “transportation tax” of $3 to $80. The reason for that wide margin is that only a few bucks goes to the city of Agadez; the rest presumably lines the border agents’ pockets.
Agadez is [also] often the first stop for Nigeria’s sex traffickers. Here, a representative from the International Organization for Migration reports, women can be “broken in”—repeatedly raped by traffickers, then forced to have sex with eight or more men per day. The women say they earn $3 per sex act in Agadez, money that goes straight to their pimp, to whom they owe a debt of up to $3,000 for “travel expenses.” After paying that off, they are taken to Libya, where they live in a compound called “La Maison Blanche,” or the White House. There, they also suffer sexual violence until the gangs put them on boats to Europe. And then once they reach the continent, they are hidden away in brothels in countries such as Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Finland.
Most of the women were lured from Nigeria, though others came from Ghana and Gambia. Very few knew what they were getting into. They just wanted to get away from Boko Haram, or the bruising poverty and food shortages in their hometowns. And traffickers have learned exactly how to seduce them. Wealthy madams fly down from Europe to regale them with stories of riches. Other recruiters are family friends, who convince parents that their daughters are their tickets out of poverty. In rare cases, traffickers pose as boyfriends or potential husbands, then bring them north telling them they’ll get lucrative jobs in Europe as saleswomen in bakeries and boutique clothing shops.
Before departing, many Nigerian women participate in a binding ritual called a “juju oath.” (Voodoo is referred to as “juju” locally.) In this pact, a local priest puts strands of a woman’s hair, slivers of her nails or items containing her bodily secretions (like a pair of panties stained with menstrual blood) in a bag that also contains her photograph. This packet represents spiritual control over a woman, and she is made to believe that she or her family will be killed unless her debt to her trafficker is repaid.
THE BUSINESS IN ITALY
A recent police investigation revealed that, for around five years now, the Mafia has been conspiring with North African smugglers to deliver tens of thousands of refugees from Egypt to Sicily. On a wiretapped phone call, a Mafia boss told an Egyptian trafficker involved in organizing boat trips about the best way to avoid trouble from the authorities. “If they find you,” the Sicilian said, “throw them all [the migrants] into the sea.”
[The Mafia, in 2013, had faced a fresh round of arrests, and] needed more people to do the kind of daily dirty work that carries a high risk of imprisonment. So it started leaning on the Black Axe and other [immigrant] African [criminal] groups to deal drugs, even to Italian clients.
Prosecutors believe that the Sicilian Mafia has implemented a double-dip strategy with the Africans. First, the Sicilians force groups like the Black Axe to buy all of their drugs from them. Then, they collect money for rental of their territory. That way, the Italians can focus on large-scale drug trafficking while still profiting off street sales—and at no real risk to themselves.
REFUGEE PROSTITUTION IN ITALY
Simona Moscarelli, an anti-trafficking expert at the International Organization for Migration, estimates that the number of Nigerian sex workers smuggled into Italy by sea has increased more than 300 percent over the past three years.
Women can fall into the Black Axe’s net in a number of ways. Prosecutors say some are ordered like menu items from Nigeria to Italy by madams. Others are recruited straight from refugee camps. There, according to Charlotte Baarda, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford who is doing her thesis on Nigerian sex trafficking networks, madams essentially tell them: “You could either be stuck in this asylum center, or you could start working for me, and I’ll help you get a residency permit or marry an Italian guy.”
And then there are those who arrive in Sicily from Agadez and Libya believing that their enslavement days are over, only to discover that they are simply entering a new phase of indentured servitude.
In a cruel twist, many of the women live in houses where their activities are strictly monitored by madams who themselves are former prostitutes. These madams have paid off their debts. Some have even lived in government-funded protective shelters or taken subsidized Italian language classes meant to help them find jobs. But after some time, they saw no other way to make money other than to stay in the business as a captor. “Women don’t have the same rights here. They are not even second-class people, but slaves,” Gandini said. “We just don’t see a way out for them.”
THE REFUGEE ECONOMY IN TURKEY
In towns and cities across Turkey, Syrians have built an entire shadow economy.
Syrian children are involved in the production of almost every conceivable product—some mundane, others darkly ironic. They have been discovered making apparel for major international brands (Marks and Spencer, ASOS and H&M) and military uniforms for ISIS.
In January, a raid on a workshop in Izmir discovered two young Syrian girls making fake lifejackets filled with non-buoyant packing materials, which are marketed to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and cause their wearers to sink faster than if they weren’t wearing a vest at all.
Not only do children regularly work with toxic chemicals and dangerous equipment, because of their age and inability to speak Turkish, they are also often unable to read safety warnings.
“There are children in all of the workshops,” one owner told us. “Children are usually more wanted because it’s easier to ask the children to get coffee, get tea, do some cleaning. They learn fast and don’t cost as much as adults.”
Child labor is illegal in Turkey. But in the provinces with the largest refugee populations, the government’s unwritten policy seems to be to turn a blind eye. Hasan Baran Uçaner, the senior expert for the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce, said the issue is “beyond our jurisdiction and control.”
FEEDING CORPORATE GROWTH IN GERMANY
Germany’s decision to accept more refugees than any other European nation was not strictly altruistic. A desire to atone for the sins of World War II was certainly part of the calculus, but Merkel and others also saw refugees as an answer to one of the greatest problems threatening Germany’s future: catastrophic demographic decline. Germany is one of the oldest countries in the world. By 2050, the number of people under the age of 15 is poised to fall to 13 percent. Given the high costs of Germany’s welfare state, it is facing a labor shortage of existential proportions. Here, all of a sudden, were hundreds of thousands of people, more than half of them under the age of 25, clamoring to build new lives in Germany. The CEO of Daimler described migrants as an “economic miracle.”
The increase in revenue for European Homecare, a niche company catering to refugee housing, has risen $100 million from 2013 to 2015
[In the short run, however, it has provided a huge boost to the part of it’s corporate sector catering to housing solutions, as well as providing private citizens with a sudden source of income. When the refugees were first scheduled to arrive, temperatures were dropping. The government’s first priority was getting the people indoors. In addition to filling gymnasiums with bunk beds, tables, food and linen,] LaGeSo [Berlin’s State Office of Health and Social Affairs] had also been begging hotels and hostels to open their doors to refugees, without much success. As a stopgap, it started handing migrants 50 euro vouchers they could use for one night’s stay. All of a sudden, the agency was bombarded with phone calls from “volunteers” offering to “help.”
Overnight, hostels that cost 30 euros per night had hiked rates to 50 euros. Handwritten signs reading “Refugees welcome to rent here” were taped inside windows and on banners draped from apartment balconies. One lawyer packed his tiny studio loft with six bunk beds, making 2,100 euros per week off an apartment that cost him less than 1,800 euros per month.
CORRUPTION AND VIOLENCE
The rush to fill positions, and the high demand for Arabic-speaking guards, has sometimes resulted in the hiring of guards who haven’t been properly trained or screened.
In 2014, prosecutors released pictures of a grinning guard at a European Homecare facility in North Rhine-Westphalia, posing with his boot on the head of a refugee. In a video filmed at the same camp, another guard forced a man to lie on a mattress covered in vomit. Security at the camp had been contracted out to a firm called SKI, which had in turn reportedly subcontracted with another company. A police investigation later revealed that at least two of the guards involved had a criminal record. European Homecare lost the contract for the shelter—but was awarded one for another large facility soon afterwards.
This is far from the only incident involving private security guards. A group of guards is under police investigation in Munich for allegedly blackmailing migrants. And in 2015, a senior LaGeSo official was fired after a new car and 51,000 euros in cash were found in his home—apparently a bribe for giving a security company a contract. Outside the LaGeSo facility in Berlin, guards were filmed calling for migrants to be sent to concentration camps and promising them that “work will make you free,” the words infamously posted above the gates of Auschwitz.