Human trafficking: the sinews of crime and terror

For criminals and terrorists, human trafficking has become one of their most lucrative enterprises, operating alongside other activities such as drugs smuggling and arms trafficking.

It is estimated that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are trafficked worldwide each year.1 More than 30% of these people are children and youngsters under the age of 18. Profits from this criminal industry are estimated at tens of billions of dollars per year, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is co-ordinating a global response to human trafficking among its 55 member states.

Although connections between criminal and terrorist groups are difficult to prove, certain links have been well documented - in Northern Ireland and the Republic, for instance, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and so-called ‘loyalist’ terrorist groups are known to have connections with criminal groups.

Terrorist groups around the world, funded by their illegal enterprises, have an annual turnover of approximately US$1,500 billion, according to the financial analyst Loretta Napoleoni.2 Much of this money is derived from trafficking in drugs, arms, gems and people, she adds.

Fighting the traffickers

It is very difficult to stop trafficking. Such an undertaking would require effective border management but effective co-operation between governments has been lacking on this issue, especially in developing countries.

The OSCE appointed a special representative in Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Helga Konrad, earlier in the year. "I shall supply governments with decision- and policy-making aids," she said at the time, "and [will] provide guidance on anti-trafficking management in order to arrive at solutions tailored to the needs of individual countries. The ultimate goal of all our anti-trafficking work, measures and activities must be a clear reduction of this horrendous crime and human rights violation".

In view of the global scale of the problem, it is perhaps surprising to note that the first international conference on sharing experiences to promote more effective border management and security was held as recently as last month (September 2004), under the auspices of the OSCE and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Joining those organisations at the conference to show the international links between human and other forms of trafficking were border and security experts from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; the International Atomic Energy Agency; the European Commission; NATO; the International Organisation for Migration; and the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods & Technologies.

The role of heroin

Although closed to the media, the conference said afterwards that hundreds of thousands of women have been trafficked worldwide for sexual exploitation. It also estimated that there was a potential European consumer market of US$30 billion for heroin trafficked from Afghanistan through Central Asian or Southern European routes.

Indeed, the trade is booming. Afghanistan's cultivation of opium poppies, which can be processed into heroin, is approaching 250,000 acres in 2004, an increase of more than 60% from the 2003 level. The cultivation of narcotics in Afghanistan is estimated to be worth between US$1 billion and US$2.3 billion - around 50% of the country's gross domestic product. Production in 2004 could even exceed the previous record, reached in 2003, of about 160,000 acres.3

The Taliban, the hardline Islamic fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan that supported terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda until its overthrow, had been aggressively promoting the crop to finance military operations before banning it in 2000 for religious reasons.

The development of a black economy fuelled by narcotics or other criminal enterprises can quickly drive out legitimate enterprises. As one specialist on offshore financial centres, which are often the conduits through which the proceeds of crime or terrorism is washed back to the perpetrators, says: "Bad money drives out good money. It is hard to compete against a business that has zero cost of capital."4

Criminal money from drug or human trafficking is used not only to set up other enterprises but also to fund insurgents. The US, UN and Afghan officials believe that opium smuggling is a source of funding for Taliban insurgents, Al-Qaeda terrorists and criminal gangs operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is relatively easy for one type of smuggling operation to be used in another form of criminal activity. In Iraq, for example, a decade of oil sanctions had led to the formation of smuggling rings. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, however, the UN says that these networks have turned to transporting other illegal goods.5

Using Turkey as a back door to Europe

The porous nature of borders in the Middle East is a matter of some concern in the EU, which, as RJHM went to press, was deciding on whether Turkey had reformed itself enough to start preliminary discussions before full membership.

A draft 54-page report, which was intended to be confidential but was leaked in early October to the press before the EU had made its decision, says that the main area of concern is not so much the cultural and religious differences between the EU and Turkey but rather its border security at the frontiers with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

These borders, the report adds, would pose a "policy challenge and require significant investment" to manage migration and asylum, fight organised crime and terrorism and combat the trafficking of human beings, drugs and illicit weapons.6

Since the document was leaked, the European Commission has recommended opening accession talks on Turkish membership of the EU, with a final decision to be made in December.

Much of the difficulty in controlling people smuggling derives from the increasingly tight legal restrictions on migration imposed by Western governments. Political pressures to reduce the number of asylum applications, especially from so-called economic migrants rather than those fleeing political repression, mean that migrants determined to enter a country are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to those offering to help them.

Between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for example, it is difficult to monitor the extent of the problem - partly because of poor inter-agency co-operation. The first cross-border organised crime threat assessment between the two countries was published as recently as late September.

The report found that 80% of the 380 people applying for asylum in the Republic each month arrived

in the country via Northern Ireland.7 These migrants arrived with the help of traffickers, a fact that demonstrates how porous the Irish border is to immigrants and terrorists alike. Konrad says that she will pay "special attention to the relations between push and pull factors - such as weak economies and high unemployment on the one hand and the demand for cheap and unprotected labour and services on the other hand".8

Cicero, the Roman statesman, said: "Endless money forms the sinews of war." By concentrating on these factors the OSCE hopes to cut at least some of the sinews of terrorism.

James Mawson was International Editor at Financial Times Business and continues to write for the Independent on Sunday business section and the Financial Times

Explore our related content