Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Trafficking in the Mediterranean Basin: Political and Security Factors

Addressing human trafficking in the Mediterranean requires international cooperation focused on economic development, political stability, and the protection of migrant rights effectively.

Human Trafficking Mediterranean Basin
Members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescuing a group of 266 migrants who were crossing the Mediterranean Sea on little boats off the Libyan coast. Matias CHIOFALO / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Between 2014 and 2024, the number of victims of human smuggling and trafficking exceeded 63,000 people, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Of these, more than 37,000 drowned in illegal migration boats, with approximately 73 per cent of the drownings occurring in the Mediterranean Sea.

As such, the Mediterranean basin has become a pivotal region for human smuggling and trafficking activities, which have increased significantly over the past decade.

Discussions about the illegal migration and human trafficking crisis often focus on the repercussions for destination countries, particularly European nations in the case of trans-Mediterranean activities.

Much attention is also given to the root causes of illegal migration, such as developmental and economic problems in countries of origin. However, a critical aspect of this phenomenon is linked to security and political factors, which fuel the activities of human trafficking and smuggling networks, exposing migrants to significant risks of exploitation and death along illegal migration routes.

The Relationship Between Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling

The crime of migrant smuggling is typically defined as facilitating the illegal entry of people into a specific country, often to escape security threats or severe poverty.

However, smuggling networks frequently engage in additional criminal activities, such as exploiting migrants along migration routes, deceiving them with false promises of work, or compromising on the promised safety and security standards during transportation.

Migrants often become vulnerable to extortion or even slavery before reaching their destination countries due to their illegal status during the journey.

Migrant smuggling intersects with human trafficking, which involves transporting, recruiting or harboring people by force or extortion for exploitation and financial gain.

According to the United Nations, taking advantage of migrants’ vulnerability in such situations constitutes human trafficking. Smugglers exploit their power to subject migrants to forced labor, sexual exploitation, child recruitment, dangerous living conditions and other common violations in the smuggling world.

Economically, the prevalence of these networks in the Mediterranean basin can be attributed to its strategic location. The region is situated between prominent illegal migration routes to Europe and low-income African countries.

Over the past decade, security unrest in North African countries like Libya and Sudan, and Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq, has accelerated migration from these regions.

Post-2020, the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic further widened development disparities between the North and South, with Southern countries lacking the necessary tools for social protection.

However, economic factors alone do not fully explain the spread of this phenomenon. In the past decade, human trafficking and migrant smuggling networks in many North African and Middle Eastern countries have benefited from political factors that facilitated their operations. These networks have collaborated with non-state armed groups, which support this illegal activity for their own reasons.

Additionally, some governments have turned a blind eye to the use of their territories as hubs for smuggling, leveraging this as a means of blackmail to obtain more international aid.

Coups and Russian Influence in Africa

In December 2023, Niger’s military junta issued a decree repealing the “anti-migrant smuggling” law, which had been enacted as part of a long-term partnership with the European Union to combat illegal migration. This decision was a response to the suspension of international aid following the military coup that ousted the country’s elected authorities.

The junta recognized that repealing the law would likely lead to a surge in illegal African migrants heading to Europe via North African countries, particularly Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. This move was part of the junta’s broader strategy to distance itself from Western countries, as it sought closer ties with Russia and demanded the withdrawal of French military forces from Niger.

European governments were alarmed by the prospect of local armed groups, some with ties to Moscow, exploiting migrant smuggling routes.

These groups have increasingly expanded their operations in several African countries, including those in the Sahel region, which has experienced a series of military coups over the past two years – namely in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea Conakry.

While Russian companies have shown interest in investing in the natural resources of these countries, media reports have frequently highlighted the involvement of Russian-backed armed groups in human trafficking activities.

The Hard Lesson Erdogan Learned

In 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used illegal migration as a political tool by opening Turkiye’s borders to allow thousands of migrants to cross into Greece and Bulgaria.

Erdogan publicized these actions through Turkish state television, which documented the cross-border migrant smuggling activities. The head of the Turkish Presidency’s Communications Department, Fakhruddin Altun, justified this move by stating that Turkiye had not received sufficient support for hosting millions of Syrian refugees.

Erdogan’s strategy yielded results later that year when the European Union agreed to provide nearly 6 billion euros in support in exchange for Turkiye continuing to host Syrian refugees.

However, this maneuver had significant negative repercussions. Turkish authorities soon realized the adverse effects of their leniency toward cross-border smuggling networks.

Several western provinces, including Istanbul, Antalya and Izmir, became hotspots for drug smuggling and human trafficking gangs, exploiting the available smuggling routes. The Turkish police are still actively working to dismantle these criminal operations.

Tunisia and Breaking Kais Saied’s Political Isolation

Tunisia has faced significant challenges due to the spread of human trafficking and illegal migration networks, a consequence of previous political turmoil.

The country has transformed into a major hub for illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in the emergence of makeshift camps in the south. These camps lack adequate infrastructure and job opportunities to support the growing population.

Consequently, Tunisian authorities have had to navigate local protests against these camps and the security issues that would arise from forcibly dismantling them and displacing their residents.

In response to this situation, the regime of President Kais Saied sought assistance from European countries, particularly Italy, which is significantly impacted by migration routes passing through Tunisia.

This collaboration aimed to curb human trafficking and illegal migration networks, and it provided Tunisia with an opportunity to secure aid and support from the European Union. This move came after Tunisia experienced political isolation following Saied’s seizure of power and the suspension of Parliament.

However, the issue of illegal migration and human trafficking has also become a tool for political maneuvering in Tunisia. The Tunisian regime’s harsh security measures against illegal migrants have led to serious human rights violations.

For instance, the authorities have deported hundreds of illegal migrants, abandoning them in remote desert areas near the Algerian border. These actions occurred alongside the regime’s crackdown on civil society organizations that defend the rights of refugees and migrants.

Instead of focusing solely on prosecuting organized human trafficking networks, the Saied regime has targeted refugees and migrants through security campaigns that neglect their welfare post-deportation. This approach has been reinforced by Saied’s populist rhetoric, which has incited hostility toward migrants and refugees among Tunisians.

Such strategies that target victims of migration and human trafficking only serve to further isolate and marginalize these vulnerable groups, increasing their risk of exploitation along migration routes.

Investing Refugees in Political Files

Human smuggling gangs have long been active on Lebanese shores, exploiting the country’s proximity to Cyprus, a primary destination for migrants, and to Syria, a major source of migrants.

Despite testimonies confirming that some security officials accepted bribes to ignore migrant smuggling trips, Lebanese authorities have shown minimal cooperation with European countries to combat this phenomenon.

In 2024, there has been a notable increase in political speeches advocating for the facilitation of illegal migration across the sea to Europe, in an attempt to emulate the model adopted by Erdogan in 2020.

These speeches openly suggest that such actions could pressure European countries to increase aid to Lebanon in exchange for hosting displaced Syrians. Lebanese politicians also believe this strategy could encourage European countries to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria.

In Libya, human trafficking has become a funding source for armed groups, alongside other illegal activities such as the exploitation of natural resources. In such environments, human trafficking and smuggling intersect with child soldier recruitment, drug smuggling and slavery, exploiting the dire conditions faced by African migrants in Libya.

Human smuggling and trafficking networks have thus been fueled by the opportunism of some regimes, armed groups, and political interests. Conversely, regimes like Tunisia have adopted harsh security measures that have placed the burden on refugees. In both scenarios, migrants are the primary victims, especially those who fail to reach wealthy destination countries.

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