The Economics of Illegality: Who Profits


Coffins in Lampedusa 2013

This post is “notes and data”, rather than a polished piece of writing , which I gathered together for a short talk at the Transeuropa festival in October. Thanks to Alina Muller for inviting me. I will not have time to write this up into a more formal academic paper for some time so decided to post the notes here for now.

This talk was motivated by the deaths at sea near Lampedusa in October 2013, and my intention was to reflect on the at European sea borders–something I have written about before—and connect this to my work on border controls and immigration detention in the UK.

We hear a lot about what migrants “cost us” and how they “cheat us” but conversely accounts which attempt to trouble this narrative of cheating often reinforce governmental categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants-refugees versus economic migrants. I don’t want to debate questions of border controls per se in this paper, but rather ask the question from another perspective–the perspective of ‘who profits’. That is, Who profits from illegality? If you don’t want to read further the answer to this question is:

  • People smugglers
  • Corrupt police and state officials
  • Governments/states (and dictators and the elites of ‘democratic’ states)
  • NGO’s
  • Oil and Gas companies
  • Global Securities and “Services” companies (G4S, SERCO)
  • Shareholders in these companies, and their corporate advisors and board members (including ex government ministers like John Reed)

Notes for a talk given at Transeuropa Festival 2013 “Migrant Resistance: Protests, Art and Movements” 20th Oct. Somerset House, London

This talk is about Favor, a woman who made the journey across Africa, across the Mediterranean sea, across mainland Europe and the across the channel to Britain. The reason for telling Favour’s story at this transeuropa event, and in this way, is that we hear a lot about what migrants “cost us” and how they “cheat us” but conversely accounts of resistance can sometimes reinforce governmental categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants- those feeling war and persecution, for example, are imagined as deserving refugees while those fleeing poverty, and/or a life unfulfilled are imagined as undeserving economic migrants.


Deserving and Undeserving Migrant Lives

I want to trouble this moral binarism, by concentrating on the Economics of Illegality—and in particular, I want to focus on the multiple forms of profiteering–by people smugglers, by national governments, by dictators, by energy companies, by global securities companies, by passport forgers, and by employers, which shape migrant journeys.

Indeed, Favour’s story reveals that it is illegality –as a classificatory status—that allows migrants to be capitalised as commodities to be exchanged in neocolonial market/traffic in people. Those who control mobility traffickers, armed militia groups, unscrupulous employers, police and officials, profit from migrants by extorting money and labour on their journeys. This is also an even darker story about profiteering by NGOs, State Governments, European Union and Global Oil Companies. Favour’s resilience, ingenuity and persistence is also revealing of how migrants come to exercise agency under conditions of abjectification and profiteering and in doing resist this commodification—sometimes by telling stories to researchers like me–sometimes in more conventionally political ways–like the hundreds of Eritrean migrants in Italy who took to the streets to protest the fact they where banned from the state funerals of family and friends drowned in the med. and those  who protest unliveable lives “captured” in Italy  without status but unable to move (because of the Dublin convention agreement and fingerprinting at borders), unable to legally work, access proper education, decent housing or healthcare.

1. Profiteering by People Smugglers

Favor began her journey north from a sub-Saharan Africa Country about 4 years ago, she paid people smugglers to make the hazardous journey overland in a “pay-as-you-go” agreement–while her money was carefully sewn inside her clothes, threats of violence and cohersion along the route meant she eventually parted with almost three times what she expected. This first part of her journey cost Favour several hundred dollars.Each year, some 55,000 migrants are thought to be smuggled from East, North and West Africa into Europe, generating about $150 million in revenue [for smugglers]”.


Map by Hein de Haas

2. Profiteering by corrupt state officials

Hidden on the outskirts of Benghazi, Favor was under under constant threat of incarceration in one of Libya’s many notorious (often European funded) detention centres and she also feared deportation back across the desert where she would have to pay to begin her journey again. Many migrants make this journey to and fro Across the desert several times.

According to different estimates, between 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) yearly, of which 70 to 80 percent are believed to migrate through Libya and 20 to 30 percent through Algeria and Morocco. Several tens of thousands (not hundreds of thousands, as media coverage might suggest) of sub-Saharan Africans try to cross the Mediterranean each year (Hein de Haas, 2006).

Police officers in Libya are often in collaboration with the people smugglers and migrants often end up paying pay a fee to police to escape detention, or indeed are jailed and/or are employed as slave labour while they save up to pay for their own deportations. There is cash to be made from revealing to police where migrants are hiding. It is difficult to remember that migrants where once allowed to freely move through and within Libya.

Today, Libya is under such pressure to detain migrants, and because migrancy has become a formal business (with EU and Italian money invested in offshoring border controls) and an informal everyday money making enterprise (involving deals between police, security forces and smugglers, and the ingoing extraction of cash from migrants on the move). Libya has even turned its national zoo into a migrant processing centre. Here, disturbingly, migrant blood is tested and those found to be Hep or HIV positive are immediately deported to ‘special’ detention centres outside of Libya.

There are special detention centres for those with diseases while they await deportation. “If they are ill, they will be transferred outside Libya,” Alaha [Commander Said Gars Alaha head of illegal immigration at the Zoo] told the Libya Herald: “If there is no illness, and they have visas, they can stay here and work and pay taxes. (Libya Herald, 2013)

Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans pass through Libya’s immigrant prison complex and many are forcibly returned to countries of origin, including political refugees fleeing civil wars and ethnic conflict. Outside of the European Union, Libya is seemingly beyond the reach of international refugee and human rights law. How did this situation come about?

3. Profiteering by Oil Companies


In 2003 the Italian government (encouraged by Tony Blair) entered into a $3 billion agreement with Libya in which it provided boats, helicopters, arms, and cash to build and run detention centers, funding for additional army and border security personnel (and thousands of body-bags) to the Libyan government on the understanding that it become a ‘regional protection zone’ which would ostensibly work to limit the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into Europe and specifically from Libya to Italy. By 2009 Libya was holding migrants in 28 immigrant prisons—both regular prisons and the most notorious–remote purpose built camps in the desert. In the same year, according to an EU report, EU member states provided Libya with defence equipment worth €344 million—weapons which he began using on his own people in 2011.

Protesters chant anti-government slogans as they demonstrate in a square in Benghazi city

A demonstration in Benghazi 2011.

An EU arms embargo on Libya was lifted in return for this `favour` and a new Libyan-Italian business venture also saw the opening of a massive undersea pipeline (ironically named `Greenstream`) to transport gas into Italian homes. In short, Libya was symbolically charged with stopping the flow of African migrants reaching Europe across Mediterranean sea-routes whilst African gas flows freely beneath.


Since the overthrow of Gaddafi’s in 2011, petro-dollars have been pouring into Libya —yet the power is out in many Libyan homes for up to 16 hours a day, and ordinary people are without basic necessities. If things are tough for Libyan citizens, conditions for some migrants especially sub-Saharan are almost indescribable. Dark skinned migrants in particular are being scapegoated for Gaddafi’s alledged use of sub-Saharan refugees as conscripts in his war against his own people – a charge which feds long-standing xenophobia against darker skinned Africans from the south.

As this quote from a journalist witnessing events from over the border in Tunisia in 2011 details:

Among the reports of atrocities occurring in Libya are claims from African migrants that they were abducted and forced to fight with Gaddafi’s forces. Nearly all migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who arrive at the desert refugee camp in Tunisia, have fled in fear of violent reprisals by Libyans who accuse them of being mercenaries. The extent to which Gaddafi’s military has used foreign mercenaries, or press-ganged migrants into fighting, remains unclear ( Anna Braithwaite, Al Jazeera, 2011)

Gaddafi played on European fears of mass migration from Africa warning EU governments during the civil war that unless they supported him “You will have the immigration of thousands of people who will invade Europe from Libya, and there will be nobody to stop them.

The Libyan ambassador to Italy responded by accusing Gaddafi of wanting “to turn Lampedusa black with Africans”.

refugees libya

A refugee from Libya in a reception camp in Tunisia in 2011 [Anna Branthwaite/Al Jazeera]

Post-war many detention centres and camps are still run by militia (Katiba) outside of full government control. [A 2013 Amnesty report I am drawing on throughout this post, Scapegoats of Fear: Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Abused in Libya, highlights the arbitrary arrests, torture, and slavery faced by those detained].

4. NGO profiteering through the externalisation of border controls

In May 2013, “the EU established a civilian technical mission in Libya aimed at building the capacity of the Libyan authorities to enhance ‘the security of Libya’s land, sea and air borders’”(Amnesty, June 2013). In the long term, the mission, which is part of a broader European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), aims to support the Libyan authorities in developing a broader “integrated border management” strategy. As Amnesty notes:

These projects pursue immigration control imperatives set by the EU and appear to disregard the human rights obligations of both Libya and the EU and its member states, including under refugee law and standards. Detention solely for the purposes of immigration control is only lawful when in strict compliance with relevant international human rights law and standards.

In 2013 International Organization for Migration revealed a new central role in border control in Libya:

As part of IOM’s efforts in Libya, the following projects are ongoing or planned with the support of the European Union (EU), Government of Italy, Government of the United States, and IOM internal funding. The portfolio of ongoing IOM activities in Libya has a total budget value of over €21 million. With 11 international and 54 national staff, IOM currently has two offices in Libya in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.

Amongst IOM’s new projects with Libyan authorities, is “Sahara-Med a project to support the Libyan police to build capacity to prevent and manage irregular migration flows from the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea”.

5. Profiteering by sea-border people smugglers

Evading all of this NGO activity, and the multiple forms of detention and deportation in Libya pre and especially post-civil war, Favor made arrangements to undertake the perilous boat-crossing from a beach near Benghazi, to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Benghazi crossing is longer, but at the shortest point, this island is 70 miles north of mainland Africa. Her boat trip cost Favor 1000 dollars.

In October, at least 400 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean making a similar trip– European Governments (chastised ironically by the US press) are holding symbolic state-funerals for the dead –the hundreds of people who died off the coast of Lampedusa have been granted post mortem Italian citizenship–while public prosecutors bring criminal charges against survivors for ‘illegal migration’. As the journalist Pablo Ordaz commented ‘Only the Dead Can Stay’.

Like the survivors of these recent tragedies, Favor was interned at Lampedusa’s detention centre (renamed the Centre for Identification and Expulsion in 2009 and described by migrants and activists as “straight out of a circle of hell”). This centre has an operating capacity of a few hundred migrants frequently houses up to a thousand people—in its decade long history, the centre has seen hunger strikes, suicides and riots – including a mass breakout in 2009 and fire followed by breakout in 2011. Indeed, migrants in Lampedusa, including some of the 155 survivors of the most recent shipwrecks who are currently interned there, have consistently resisted and protested at the conditions

6. Profiteering by people smugglers – forged papers

Favor managed to avoid being fingerprinted in Italy, and managed to get out of the detention centre on Lamapudsa and travel across Europe, with forged papers including a student visa, before arriving in the UK. Favour paid £100 dollars for her forged papers.

7. Immigration detention is a “recession-proof” business (Feltz & Baksh, 2012, p. 143).

Favor was detained in a dawn-raid by British border officials at the hostel in which she lived. Her arrest was triggered when she applied for a casual cleaning job at a local hospital. Favor had been living in the UK for three years, working primarily as a cleaner, dog-walker and occasional child-minder in private family homes. On her arrest she was transported in a prison van by migrant ‘detainee escort services’, a job contracted by the British Government to the private company Reliance Security Group, to a temporary holding facility at a police station before being moved to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

From this moment in Favor’s story it is important to begin to note how her status as “illegal” enabled her to be systematically transformed into a commodity. For example, once migrants are caught in Britain’s detention estate, they are frequently moved in, out and between different places of incarceration — cycles of arrest and release which can last years. For companies like Reliance, mobility determines profit and the greater the number of migrant detainee movements within the immigration detention estate the more profit accrues to securities companies.

The management of irregular migrants captured within the detention estate is characterised by a complex and often seemingly random combination of forced movements and enforced periods of stillness (migrants are often compelled to stay in specific housing, in specifically designated towns and cities as well as being imprisoned in secure detention facilities). Despite the governmental rhetoric, these mobility controls are not designed to ‘seal the borders’ so much as to extract profit from border-creation. Indeed, in the space of a decade an unbelievably profitable detain and release network has emerged controlled by global securities companies. These controls form what Sandro Mezzadra describes as ‘a system of dams’ (Mezzadra, 2004) which enable the transformation of illegality from a status into a commodity which/who can be bought and sold in a global marketplace. As the investigative journalists, Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh argue detention is a “recession-proof” business (Feltz & Baksh, 2012, p. 143).

Yarl’s Wood is run under contact by the global securities company SERCO— The average daily overall cost to the British Government and its tax-payers of keeping a single person in detention per day is estimated to be £120 ($188 or E140) (Silverman et al 2012).

8. Multi-nationals Profiteering from precarious labour

Whilst detention is supposed to be a short-term solution, employed in the 48 hour window prior to deportation, Favor was still detained several weeks later. In order to continue to buy expensive top-up phone cards, to keep in touch with friends and family in the outside world, Favor took on a cleaning job in the detention centre.

Paradoxically, Favor had been detained because she was working, illegally, as a cleaner. She had been paid the minimum wage (currently £6/ $9 an hour) as an illegal worker. Ironically, once detained normal labour laws no do not apply to illegal migrants and SERCO paid Favor 50p ($.75) an hour (see also McVeigh 2011). A job description leaked by a migrant worker from inside SERCO reveals the post of ‘Laundry Assistant’ also at wages of 50p an hour . Exploited detainee labour reduces SERCO’s running costs and further increases the profit to be made from this growth market in ‘migrant illegality’. Serco’s Motto: ‘Bringing Services to Life’.


A photocopy of job description produced by Serco for Immigration Detainees, published online at ‘Yarl’s Wood echos H-Block and Attica’

Borders Kill

More than 30,000 migrants arrived in Italy and Malta in the first nine months of 2013 alone- nobody knows how many have died in the attempt-although some activists have attempted to count the dead. Whether fleeting conflict in Syria, forced conscription in Eretria, or poverty and diminished life chances—what we do know if that the reason people cross from Africa to Europe in such a perilous way, is that Spain and Italy introduced visa requirements for African nationals in the early 1990s which forced many people, who previously could freely cross into Europe, to cross borders irregularly.

It is hard to remember but before the 1990s, people could move back and forth from North Africa into Europe (Spain and Italy) much more freely to work and before Italy and the EU paid the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi to imprison migrants in return for gas dollars, and as part of a larger EU project outsourcing detention and border controls–conditions in Libya for sub-Saharan migrants where significantly better than they are today. Post-Gaddafi, border and visa controls have massively proliferated, in part in an attempt at ‘racist state-making’ through ‘xenophobic scapegoating’ in what is a precarious, fractured and weak state –a state which– as I have briefly detailed–is encircled by corporate oil vultures and profiteering NGOs.

Europe generates the demand cheap labour

Neoliberal economic policies such as privatization, deregulation, unrestricted foreign investment and the contracting out of state-run services are dependent upon the porosity of borders to flows of capital, including the availability of pools of precarious migrant labour. Thus there is a major discrepancy between policies seemingly aimed at curbing immigration and limiting movement, and the demand for cheap irregular migrant labour. It is in the context of this ‘double agenda’, between the imperatives of state formation and neoliberal economics, between the imperatives of securing the borders and opening the borders that irregular migrants are capitalised.

Favor’s case reveals the degree to which illegality makes her vulnerable to precarious working conditions, not only outside but within the detention estate. What this story also reveals is some of the ways in which Eurpean States and global securities companies are extracting profit from the market in human waste production. As more and more bureaucratic systems of determination, detention and deportation emerge so international global securities companies penetrate further into the fabric of the state in response to the ‘problem’ of migrant illegality. At the same time, while huge amounts of taxpayers’ money handed to multinationals to manage the borders, most irregular migrants determined to be illegal are not deported but remain in limbo ‘under excruciatingly vulnerable socio-political conditions’ (De Genova 2011).

And what happened to Favour…?

Favour was finally released from detention after twelve weeks, at which stage SERCO would have billed the British Government approximately £100,000 for her incarceration. Favor was unsure why she had been released. She had received no legal advice whilst detained. Favor absconded from the temporary bail address she was given and is currently working as a cleaner (cash in hand). She intends to move to another country and continue her migrant journey when she can afford to purchase a forged passport.

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