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Red Tape Impedes European Efforts To Prosecute Migrant Smugglers

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: I'm Jackie Northam in Washington. Shukri al-Assoli, the Palestinian man featured in Emily's story, may have a very long wait for any arrests - nevermind prosecutions - in his case.

LEONARD DOYLE: As far as we're aware, there's no international investigations of this. Nobody's invested anything in it. And there's certainly no attempt to reach a prosecution.

NORTHAM: Leonard Doyle is a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration which is tracking Assoli's case and others. He says the European Union has been overwhelmed trying to rescue refugees as they make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. Now the EU is promising to go after the smugglers, but Doyle says much of that is rhetoric.

DOYLE: In terms of the smugglers, they make a big noise about it. The Europeans were beating their breasts about going after the smugglers earlier this year, but in truth, there's not a lot they can do.

NORTHAM: The EU is considering plans to sink or disable the boats, but they have to get the migrants off first. And oftentimes, the smugglers weren't even on the vessels in the first place. The EU is also trying to prosecute smugglers.

ANDREAS SCHLOENHARDT: The laws related to the smuggling of migrants are all over the place between these different countries.

NORTHAM: Andreas Schloenhardt is a professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland and a specialist on smuggling. He says the EU countries face a fundamental problem.

SCHLOENHARDT: There is no uniformity as to how they even define this offense, let alone its penalties.

NORTHAM: Schloenhardt, speaking from Vienna via Skype, says the average smuggler is some local guy who drives people across a border to make a quick buck. But there are also well-structured criminal groups, says Morgane Nicot with the U.N.'s Office of Drugs and Crime.

MORGANE NICOT: In order to reach the high level organizers, you need to have intelligence-led investigations, long-term investigations looking into the assets, potential money laundering as well as the assets of the high-level organizers.

NORTHAM: And that is how a prosecution team in Italy has been dealing with smuggling networks. When a ship sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa two years ago killing more than 360 people, prosecutors in Sicily began viewing smuggling through the lens of organized crime. So far, they've arrested more than 400 people. Gery Ferrara, an anti-mafia prosecutor, recently spoke with NPR's Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GERY FERRARA: We changed our approach here, and we started investigating these kind of criminal phenomenon exactly on the same way and using the same tools, the same methods that we use in mafia investigation.

NORTHAM: That means surveillance, wiretaps, digging into social networks used by smuggling rings. Six high-level smugglers are now on trial in Palermo but not ringleaders. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.