Human Trafficking and Organised Crime in the Mediterranean

by Ben Scicluna

 Organised crime groups (OCGs) continue to use the political instability and ineffective governance in Mediterranean states to profit from human trafficking and modern slavery. Profits remain substantial, high-yield and often low-risk for the perpetrators. This article explores the relationship between OCGs and modern slavery, focusing on the increased migration into Europe of vulnerable adults and unaccompanied minors since 2014, which these groups have exploited.

Big Business, New Resources

OCGs have utilised their expertise in clandestine trade networks and money-laundering to exploit a plentiful resource: migrants fleeing conflict or wanting to build a better life in Europe (Europol, 2017). Smugglers facilitating illegal transit into the European Union come from over 122 countries and generated over EUR 3bn in profit in 2016 (Europol, 2017). While some victims are trafficked directly from their home nations, others are trafficked from transit countries. Human smuggling and human trafficking are not analogous. However, in the latter stages of smuggling routes into Europe, the risk of encountering crime networks may increase as vulnerabilities become greater. Both geography (the sea-route across the Mediterranean, rather than transport across land) and more stringent police and border controls, provide OCGs with migrants willing to take risks and utilise their services. Migrants are unaware that in the process of entering Europe illegally they are accruing ‘debts’ which OCGs will use as a justification for their slavery.

The large profits in human trafficking and modern slavery produce an incentive for OCGs to expand their operations into this area. Desperate migrants, eager to reach their intended destination and willing to pay for transit, fall into the hands of OCGs either acting as smugglers themselves or in contact with smugglers, easily exploiting people at their most vulnerable. Once trafficked migrants reach Europe they fall beneath the radar; with no legal right to residence they cannot necessarily seek legal protection. Trafficked migrants are therefore put in an almost impossible situation: they can seek legal assistance and risk imprisonment or deportation to their home or a transit country, failing in their goal of a new life in Europe and potentially depriving reliant families of expected remittances; or they can endure slavery with the hope of eventually paying off their false debts. OCGs use the legitimate fears of victims to secure their illegitimate objectives.


Political and Economic Crises and Instability

Modern wars have provided OCGs with ideal conditions in which to operate. While inter-state warfare has become rarer, intra-state warfare has spread. Civil wars cause refugee crises, as they often relate to identity and the expulsion of the ‘other’; they enable warlordism, with no overall state control and several actors governing and contesting smaller geographic areas; and they encourage organised crime, as warlords use illegal profits to enrich themselves and their supporters and to fund militias. These ‘New Wars’ are particularly destructive because they encourage continuation over peace, as warlords, militias and OCGs gain significant illegal income (and therefore power) that dissipates in peacetime. When a state has no overall sovereignty within its territory, failing to control law, policing, borders and taxation, OCGs can flourish.

Libya has proven to be fertile ground for traffickers, with rival governments fighting for control and with huge swathes of territory with no governance. The central Mediterranean migration route has re-established ancient trans-Saharan slave trading routes, with harrowing results. Some West and East African migrants who congregate in Sahel border cities such as Agadez, Ghat and Sabha, are sold to slave traders for domestic demand or export, and openly auctioned off in markets in Libya. Bids for female victims (of all ages) start around EUR 2,000, as traffickers’ potential earnings from sexual slavery is higher than the earnings from manual labour for men (who have a price of around EUR 400) (Kelly, 2017).

The actions of the European Union may be inadvertently assisting OCGs. Since 2015 the EU has established EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, a naval patrol of the Mediterranean which rescues migrants at sea and acts as a training program for the Libyan coastguard. However, the Libyan coastguard, under EU direction, returns migrants from the Mediterranean to the African mainland, forcing them into overcrowded detention camps. This provides a ready stream of increasingly desperate migrants eager to flee their effective imprisonment in Libya, becoming vulnerable to people traffickers who may be more effective at transporting them into Europe. Operation Sophia has also been criticised as potentially acting as a draw for migrants, as the increased chance of rescue at sea and then safe landing in Europe provides a more assured and (in theory) safer route of entry. This may have increased the popularity of the central Mediterranean route via Libya.  Regardless of its possible faults, Operation Sophia has saved 40,000 lives, neutralised 470 vessels and arrested 110 suspected smugglers and traffickers as of late 2017 (European Council, 2017).


Several African states are currently experiencing civil wars and insurgencies, increasing the supply of migrants that can be exploited by traffickers. Groups such as Islamic State, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and the Janjaweed militia simultaneously cause refugee crises as people flee conflict, and effectively operate as OCGs by engaging in people trafficking to fund their insurgencies (Malik, 2017). These groups often control key points along the migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa.


OCGs in Italy

The increase in migration since 2014 has enabled lucrative alliances between old and new OCGs in southern Italy. Legal migration to Italy in the 1980s created a Nigerian diaspora out of which grew new OCGs that were later able to exploit undocumented migrants. While the traditional OCGs of the Mezzogiorno were fiercely territorial, with groups such as the Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta operating in their respective areas, the new Nigerian OCGs seem able to operate in southern Italy and generate profits for both themselves and the Italian mafia organisations. Nigerian OCGs such as ‘Black Axe’ and the ‘Vikings’ pay pizzo money, effectively a tax or tribute, to operate in some Italian OCGs’ areas, as they are best able to operate the prostitution and brothel rackets that exploit Nigerian women and minors (Modarressy-Tehrani and Dedman, 2017).

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI, 2016) estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 Nigerian women and minors were trafficked into Italy in 2016, forced into prostitution to repay ‘debts’ to traffickers. 85% of these trafficked women and girls come from the Niger Delta state of Edo, one of the poorest in Nigeria, in which groups such as the Black Axe operate in gang-warfare and low-level secessionist insurgencies (Kelly, 2017). Nigerian OCGs in Italy are able to use their links in Nigeria to act as credible threats to the families of victims, making them potentially more effective in coercion than Italian OCGs. A particular facet of Nigerian trafficking appears to be psychological coercion, which can affect victims even once freed of their slavery (Tondo and Kelly, 2017). Victims are dissuaded from escape and made pliable via ‘juju ceremonies’, in which promises are made before spirits that are believed to enact revenge on the victim and their family should they be broken (Tondo and Kelly, 2017).

Italian OCGs have greatly benefited from the surge in migration, with people aiming for Italy from across Africa and Asia, hoping to then travel by land to other destinations in Europe. It is estimated that the Italian mafia’s profits from human trafficking and slavery amounts to over EUR 600m (Organised Crime Portfolio, 2015).

OCGs based in Italy have also forged alliances with groups as far away as Egypt (Day, 2013), with migrants using the longer route between the eastern and central Mediterranean to avoid land borders. Victims tend to be Syrian refugees, Palestinians, East Africans and Egyptians themselves, who are then smuggled to southern Italy and Malta, or abandoned to their fate in the sea so the perpetrators can avoid capture.

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OCG in Malta

Migrants in Malta face particularly difficult circumstances, through ‘destitution, social exclusion and marginalisation’ (Kemp, 2017). While there is evidence of some incidents of modern slavery, predominantly female slavery in the sex industry and some limited manual labour-based slavery in construction and agriculture, Malta is primarily a transit country. The state has often given inadequate support for migrants, with many kept in overcrowded (but open) camps or settled with leave to remain, but facing social exclusion and racism. Christian Kemp (2017) notes that the longer migrants are kept in Malta, the higher the vulnerability of human trafficking, as they become increasingly desperate to leave to continue their journeys onto the European mainland. While they may have reached Malta through consensual human smuggling, the relatively secure sea-route between Malta and Sicily enables OCGs to take advantage of this more difficult crossing. The Libya-Malta-Italy smuggling route has long been used for the illegal trade in arms, tobacco and fuel, with advanced networks spreading across Europe to as far away as Northern Ireland (Caruana Galizia, 2016). OCGs based in Malta and southern Italy now use the skills gained from decades of smuggling illicit goods via this route to traffic people, using the same networks to rapidly disperse them without capture throughout Sicily, the Italian mainland and Europe.

Much of Malta’s economy is based on off-shore banking and online gaming, while the country is also currently experiencing a construction and property boom, making it an ideal location to launder money from human trafficking. In 2015 the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta used Maltese online gambling companies to launder EUR 2bn (Martin, 2017a) and Rosi Bindi, head of the Italian Anti-mafia Commission, has described Malta as a ‘little paradise’ for OCGs’ money laundering (Costa, 2017). Tourism is a vital component in the economies of countries that border the Mediterranean, and the plethora of hotels, nightclubs and massage parlours found in resorts can be used by OCGs to both launder money and as locations for modern slave work (Europol, 2017).

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Malta, like other Mediterranean states such as Italy and Greece, has seen its slavery risk rating increase on the Verisk Maplecroft Modern Slavery Index 2017 (Verisk Maplecroft, 2017). Due to no trafficking convictions since 2012, Malta continues to have a Tier 2 rating as a country that is both a source and transit country of trafficked persons on the US State Department Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2017 report (Dalli, 2017).


Other OCGs Operating in the Mediterranean and Beyond.

OCGs from across the globe now operate in the Mediterranean region to engage in modern slavery. Ukrainian OCGs may have exploited visa-free travel to use Malta as a base for their operations, smuggling women from outside the EU via Eastern Europe for sexual slavery (Martin, 2017b). 20 victims were rescued in December 2017 and granted emergency protection by Maltese authorities (Martin, 2017b).

Bosnian OCGs have used trafficked children in Spain to conduct thefts in tourist areas, with a pan-European network of linked familial groups selling victims for EUR 5,000 (Europol, 2017). In July 2017 a Bulgarian OCG that had operated brothels in tourist resorts Marbella and Torremolinos was dismantled by Spanish and Bulgarian police, with 13 victims of human trafficking rescued (Eurojust, 2017). With human trafficking a lucrative industry for OCGs, Europol have dismantled groups from as far afield as China (Eurojust, 2017).


Combatting OCGs.

Many European states are increasing their efforts to combat human trafficking perpetrated by OCGs. Italy has used anti-mafia legislation against Nigerian OCGs, the first time it has done so against a non-established mafia group. Malta has accepted more must be done to protect migrants and hosted a Vatican sponsored ‘Summit on Sharing Models and Best Practices to End Modern Slavery and Restore Dignity to its Victims’. Countries such as Switzerland, Japan and Canada have funded projects in Egypt to combat trafficking and alleviate the vulnerabilities of migrants, so that they are less likely to fall into the hands of traffickers.

The EU (and individual member states) have several major projects in North Africa, such as the EUR 6.8m EUROMED Migration IV project, which provides frameworks to combat trafficking, and Finland’s EUR 2.75m Transit II project, which provides humanitarian assistance along migration routes. The EU’s EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia has had its mandate to patrol the Mediterranean and train the Libyan coastguard extended until 31st December 2018.

The Mediterranean, a crossroads between three continents, will continue to pose a significant challenge in the fight against human trafficking. OCGs have exploited war, poverty and state weakness to profit from people seeking a safer, better life in Europe. While efforts are increasing to combat OCGs, the large profits involved ensure that the struggle will continue as long as there is a ready demand for modern slavery in Europe.

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Headline Photograph by Irish Defence Forces on Operation Triton (

World with Countries – Outline by

Caruana-Galizia, D., (2016), ‘A Hub of Crime and Smuggling’, Malta Independent, 17th January 2016.

Costa, M., (2017), ‘Mafia Seeing Malta as “Little Paradise” Italian Anti-mafia Commission Warns’, Malta Today, 24th October 2017.

Dalli, M., (2017) ‘US Continues to See Malta as Source Country for Sex Trafficking’, Malta Today, 6th July 2017.

Day, M., (2013), ‘Revealed: Mafia’s Prime Role in Human Trafficking Misery’, The Independent, 24th October 2013.

Eurojust Press Release, 7th July 2017, accessed and retrieved December 2017 from:

European Council (2017) Press Release 494/17, accessed and retrieved December 2017 from:

Europol (2017), European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017.

Graham-Harrison, E. (2017) ‘Africa’s New Slave Trade: How Migrants Flee Poverty to get Sucked into a World of Violent Crime’, The Guardian, 14th May 2017.

Kelly, A., (2017) ‘Trafficked to Turin: The Nigerian Women Forced to Work as Prostitutes in Italy’, The Guardian, 7th August 2016.

Kemp, C., (2016), ‘In Search of Solace and Finding Servitude: Human Trafficking and the Human Trafficking Vulnerability of African Asylum Seekers in Malta’, Global Crime, 18:2, 2017.

Malik, N., (2017), ‘Trafficking Terror: How Modern Slavery and Sexual Violence Fund Terrorism’, London: The Henry Jackson Society.

Martin, I., (2017a), ‘‘Ndrangheta Ran A €2billion Money Laundering Operation Through Malta-Based Online Betting’, Times of Malta, 6th September 2017.

Martin, I., (2017b), ‘Claim That Maltese Authorities “May Have Helped” Traffickers Denied’, Times of Malta, 16th December 2017.

Modarressy-Tehrani and Dedman, (2017) ‘The Mafia and Nigerian Gangs Are Targeting Refugees in Sicily’, Vice News, 21st October 2017.

Organised Crime Portfolio, (2015) ‘From Illegal Markets to Legitimate Businesses: The Portfolio of Organised Crime in Europe’.

Tondo, L. and Kelly, A., (2017) ‘The Juju Curse That Binds Nigerian Women into Sex Slavery’, The Guardian, 3rd September 2017.

Verisk Maplecroft Modern Slavery Index (2017), accessed and retrieved December 2017 from:

United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Centre (2016), ‘Countering Trafficking and Smuggling of Women and Unaccompanied Minors in the Mediterranean: Challenges, Good Practices and the Ways Forward’.

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