DUNKIRK, France (Reuters) - When Kaiwan Hussein, a 26-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan, arrived in Germany on Nov. 23 after he slipped across the European Union border from Belarus, he sent a one-word WhatsApp message to his brother back home saying “OK.”
That was a signal for the family to authorise the release of a $3,500 payment to a smuggler contact, who Hussein knew only by the nickname ‘Nato,’ that was being held in a money transfer shop in his hometown of Ranya.
Hussein’s planned onward trip to northern France and then Britain was interrupted after he sent the message when German police intercepted him in the east German border town of Gorlitz, the biology graduate told Reuters. After several days at a migrant centre he continued his journey, but Hussein said he believes the delay saved his life: he thinks he would have been on a dinghy that deflated while crossing the English Channel on Nov. 24 killing 27 migrants, based on the timing and location of its departure.
When he reached the French coast early Sunday Nov. 28 he sent another “OK” signal, prompting his family to make a payment to the smuggler contact of 350 euros (about $400), said Hussein the following day, standing outside the tent he’d slept in at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk.
Hussein’s experience fits with what migrants say is a growing use of an informal financial network, known as hawala, by smugglers operating as far north as the United Kingdom.
The payment network, which operates largely without an easily traceable paper trail, helps smugglers mask transactions from authorities and avoids the risks of taking cash across borders.
Migrants say they like not having to carry large amounts of cash and that this mode of payment reduces the risk of being swindled or robbed.
The hawala payment system, which relies on a trusted network of transfer agents to make payments outside the banking system, dates back centuries and was often used along Balkan migrant routes that sprang up five years or so ago.
Now, it is being widely used to get from mainland Europe to Britain, according to interviews with 20 people in northern France who said they have tried or are hoping to make the crossing.
The people said they had all used the system themselves and that they believed it had become the primary means of paying for the passage.
Hussein's account was confirmed by a friend who accompanied him across Europe as well as messages he sent to family seen by Reuters. Police in Gorlitz and the German interior ministry declined to comment.
“If we had cash, they might take it from us,” said Hussein, who said he arrived in France with only about 50 euros ($57).
Under Hussein’s arrangement, his family’s payments remained in the hands of the money transfer agent in Ranya until he signalled his arrival and authorised release to the smuggler contact.
He said that provided a level of protection because if he fails to reach his destination, the payment is returned to the family by the transfer agent, who Hussein didn’t identify.
He said he plans to pay the same way for the final leg of his journey when he reaches Britain - a trip that currently costs up to about 3,500 euros to cross by boat, migrants say.
Any shadow banking system makes it impossible for authorities to use financial transactions to trace what smugglers are doing, said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a civil society and research organisation based in Geneva.
Previously, payments to smuggling networks would usually take place in cash on French soil, according to Reitano.
“Financial investigations are a core pillar of police investigations and hawala takes away that pillar,” she said.
In Europe, hawala “in and of itself it is not illegal, but criminals can abuse it to launder money," said a spokesperson for Europol, Europe's police coordinating body.
The system “is very often used as means of payment for smuggling activities,” including migrant smuggling across the Channel, said Filippo Spiezia, chair of the Anti-Trafficking Team and National Member for Italy at the EU’s criminal justice agency, Eurojust.
Regulations governing hawala payment systems varies in different parts of the world but a U.N. protocol aimed at preventing migrant smuggling says migrants shouldn’t be prosecuted and only those considered to be facilitating irregular migration are criminalised, according to Reitano.
To prosecute a money transfer agent, which rarely happens, law enforcement typically would need to prove the agent knew the money being transferred was intended to be used for an illegal act, she added.
Britain's Home Office, which oversees policing and immigration, declined to comment on smuggler tactics or operational matters. The British government has said it has dismantled 17 organised criminal groups, made hundreds of arrests and secured 65 convictions.
France’s Interior Ministry didn’t respond to questions. The Minister of Interior has said French authorities have arrested 1,500 smugglers since January and that France plans to double anti-smuggling policing resources.
The British and French governments have emphasised the need for action against criminal gangs. Some academics and non-governmental organisations say that masks what they consider to be an underlying problem: there are only limited options for legally claiming asylum in Britain, which fuels illegal migration and creates the demand for smugglers.
Some 110,000 migrants have entered the EU via its southern borders this year, fleeing conflict and poverty from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, according to the United Nations (U.N.).
More than 6,000 people also entered from the east via Belarus during the first 10 months, according to the EU’s border agency, Frontex. Migrants say entering and crossing Europe can cost several thousand euros or more.
Some 2,500 have died or gone missing attempting to cross into Europe at its southern borders between January and October of this year, U.N. figures show.
The arrivals have also caused political turmoil with rows over responsibility leading to tense confrontations between the EU and Belarus as well as squabbling between London and Paris.
EU countries have accused Belarus of encouraging migrants to cross into Poland and Lithuania via its territory, leaving thousands stranded at the border. Minsk denies this and blames the humanitarian crisis on the EU.
Hundreds of small boats have attempted the journey from France to England this year, across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The number of known migrants crossing the English Channel has surged to more than 25,000 so far in 2021, about triple the previous year, according to tallies compiled by British news organization the BBC, citing official data.
The Home Office declined to comment on the figures. The UK has said more than 20,000 crossings have been stopped this year.
Some people hoping to make the crossing say they have only recently switched to paying through hawala. Dawan Mahmud, a 30-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan staying at the same camp as Hussein, said he lost more than $2,000 to a smuggler when he first arrived in France three months ago.
Mahmud told Reuters he had paid cash up front that time. He has since started using the money transfer shops back home to avoid being ripped off again, adding that his family’s payment would only be released by the transfer agent to the smuggler after he reaches England.
Transferring money in this way works by an agent in one location accepting a deposit and then contacting a counterpart in another city or country to say how much has been received.
Cash often isn’t physically moved across borders, instead agents operate a credit-like system among themselves where payments are made in both directions. They typically charge a fee or commission for their service, which is often considered less costly than wire transfers or other methods of transferring money.
Hawala, which means “transfer” in Arabic and Farsi, is widely used in parts of South Asia and the Middle East for sending and receiving remittances and other payments, including where there is poor access to banks or international money transfers are limited due to sanctions.
For Hussein, who said he left Iraqi Kurdistan because of corruption and the challenges of finding a job, the hawala system was an obvious choice because it’s commonly used at home as a way to transfer money.
But he resents having to pay such large sums to smugglers. “They take a lot of money for nothing,” he said. But “for most of us [it] is the only option.”
(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Editing by Christian Lowe and Cassell Bryan-Low)