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Behind the dangerous trade of migrant smuggling

A truck with 71 dead migrants found along an Austrian highway last week called attention to the dangers of smuggling. Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum has investigated the migrant smuggling trade and joins Alison Stewart via Skype from Brussels with the latest.

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  • ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    One way migrants get to and through Europe is with the help of smugglers who offer passage on rickety boats, by taxi and truck, and even by chartered aircraft, all for a price.

    A truck with 71 dead migrants found along an Austrian highway last week called attention to the dangers of smuggling. In the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara yesterday, 300 people protested the human trafficking and the rash of migrants dying on their shore.

    Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum has investigated the migrant smuggling trade and joins me now via Skype from Brussels.

    Michael, when did this kick into high gear as a true, full-fledged business?

  • MICHAEL BIRNBAUM, THE WASHINGTON POST:

    Well, this has been an evolving transformation over the last couple of years as this tremendous flow of refugees and migrants has increased into Europe.

    But what we've seen is that a lot of preexisting criminal networks, especially in Eastern Europe, have sort of just changed their business, they see this as a good opportunity, and now they're offering their services to people who want to make it into Western Europe.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    And I have to imagine the internet has played a role in this exploding.

  • MICHAEL BIRNBAUM:

    That's right. It's now easier than ever, if you are a migrant or if you are a refugee, just to look, particularly on Facebook. There are smugglers who just advertise their services very openly, usually in Arabic.

    On Facebook, you can look. You can find promises of passage for, you know, whatever kind of level of service you want, but typically from Turkish refugee camps to particular countries inside Europe. And those prices range anywhere from $2,500, up to $10,000, or even more.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Without being flip I'm going to use the word "menu". There are practically menus of options for people out there.

  • MICHAEL BIRNBAUM:

    Well, there are a couple different ways– they really do look like menus. Their entire list just goes down with different prices. And the choices range both from the country that you go to, the countries that are particularly desirable are Germany and Sweden.

    They've been the most open to refugees, and then the level of service along the way, so that can range anything from below deck on a rickety fishing boat coming up from Egypt or Libya that will take you to a Greek or Italian island in the Mediterranean.

    And I spoke to a Swedish police official who told me that in one instance, there was even a private charter jet that took off from Istanbul, just flew straight into Stockholm, and when people landed, they claimed asylum right when they hit the tarmac.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What are people doing, what are countries doing to combat the smuggling?

  • MICHAEL BIRNBAUM:

    Well, just in the last week, week and a half, Austria in particular, where the 71 people were found dead on the side of a highway, has significantly increased highway controls. They have been searching basically all trucks and vans that are entering Austria from Hungary. That's been a big effort that takes a lot of work.

    They have been finding more instances of people smuggling, including a couple of very dangerous situations when people were, indeed, locked into the back of these vehicles without much air. But it's a tremendous challenge.

    And, you know, I was speaking to a colleague of mine who's in Hungary today where there's yet another crisis, and all of those Austrian police who have been doing that have been tasked today with other jobs trying to process just the tremendous inflow of asylum seekers who are coming in.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Michael Birnbaum from The Washington Post — thank you so much for your time today.

  • MICHAEL BIRNBAUM:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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