This was the question that a team of us at The Fletcher School at Tufts University set out to answer in our study “The Financial Journey of Refugees.” We studied the routes and financial challenges of more than 100 refugees in Greece, Jordan and Turkey, between July 2016 and April 2017. The refugees we interviewed had traveled from South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and West Africa.
Regardless of their country of origin, with the exception of Syria, a refugee’s biggest expense was the cost of hiring a smuggler. Smuggling expenses ran about 85 percent of the total cost of the journey. The smuggler’s fee included important services: travel by air or overland, depending on the refugee’s budget, guide services across borders, payment of bribes at border crossings, and documentation falsification expenses. Smuggling prices varied widely by country of origin (some borders being porous, others sealed tight), by how deluxe a trip was (air versus ground), by numbers of borders crossed (affecting the number of falsified IDs required). To give an example, journeying overland from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey to Greece might cost $7,500 per person, a price that went up or down based on shifting rules and border crackdowns. Traveling from Eritrea to Greece might cost the same amount. Traveling from Syria to Turkey could cost as little as $500.
The price of the journey was one factor in a traveler’s safety – the higher the cost, the better the traveling modes, and the safer the travel. While what refugees paid their smuggler was important, how they paid them was equally important. Did the refugee pre-pay the kingpin smuggler in advance of the journey? Did she post-pay him after arriving safely in Greece or Germany? Did she pay leg by leg? All these strategies were in play and we outline them in our report summary and they are detailed by the refugees themselves in a Compendium of Field Notes. Below we describe two of many strategies.
Strategy 1: Guarantee Scheme via a Financial Third Party
Money agent networks, often informal, span from Pakistan to Germany, and around the world. These networks—dubbed Eastern Union by a Jordanian regulator—do far more than transfer funds from person A to person B. They will store funds for later disbursement or, if instructed, will shunt funds directly to smugglers. For example, a journeyer traveling overland from Kabul to Athens might visit a money agent in Kabul (a saraf) who will take her deposit for $7,500. When she arrives safely to her first waypoint, which could be in Zahedan, Iran, she texts a code to her saraf. The code, incidentally, would have been randomly generated by the saraf’s app before her departure and she would have memorized it. By sending the code, the refugee signals her safe arrival at the Zahedan waypoint. The saraf then forwards a predetermined sum to the kingpin smuggler, using a network of couriers and other money agents to get him his funds. The kingpin in turn deploys a combination of banks and money agents to make sure his local smugglers get paid.
There is no single way this system of guarantee works. It is customized, improvised upon, and individually negotiated by various actors. In some instances, there is no code. In others, there are several codes. In some instances, the kingpin smuggler chooses the saraf. In others, the refugee chooses the saraf. In Syria, the third party is often a shopkeeper who charges $50 to insure the journey. In Iran, the money agent charges a percentage (often 10 percent) of transactions.
Strategy 2: Crowdsourcing via Kin
Typically, crowdsourcing via kin is a pre-payment strategy, but not always. We interviewed refugees who were held hostage by smugglers at various points along their routes. When relatives—sometimes a circle of relatives both forward and backward along the route—paid up, the hostage refugee was released to be smuggled farther along her route.
Often crowdsourcing came in the form of pre-payments along various points in a route. For example, traveling from Eritrea to Greece, a journeyer might signal a relative in Khartoum to fund trip expenses. The relative in Khartoum would crowdsource funds from family members in multiple countries across Europe and North America. She might use Zain, a mobile money system, to collect the funds and hold them in Khartoum. She would then secure a smuggling network to help the Eritrean refugee cross to Sudan. The kingpin smuggler would be paid via a courier upon the refugee’s safe arrival in Khartoum. If the Eritrean refugee wanted to continue north to Turkey, Greece or Northern Europe, another round of crowdsourcing would begin. Again, the relative would make payment to the smuggler after the refugee’s safe arrival. In some cases, to ensure compensation, the smuggler will stay with the refugee in a safe house until he has received his payment via Western Union or an informal money agent.
Said one refugee: “It’s a collective system. All Eritreans understand each other on this.” The understanding is that she does not have to pay her relatives back, but she is expected to pay her debt forward: when someone else in her network tries to escape Eritrea, she is expected to do her part to financially support his or her expenses.
What do these strategies mean for providers of financial services? Clearly suppliers cannot legally, knowingly pay smugglers. But, perhaps there are other forms of financial assistance that are perfectly legal.
First, licit travel is often part of a route and could be better insured. For example, a refugee may be able to obtain a visa to a transit country and would like to secure legal travel there. But, because prior legs of the journey may be cobbled together through smugglers, the refugee cannot predict when they will reach the transit country. Insurance could help offset this uncertainty. Too often providers are skeptical that people need financial education to understand sophisticated insurance products. As long as the systems are familiar and offer value, refugees both literate and illiterate, will master them quickly. Second, providers believe that people don’t like to save, but, we found that saving for a purpose—journey preparation—is valuable. Surely, there are many legal ways to assist refugees to accumulate savings for journey purposes. And just as surely, clever suppliers could find ways for refugees to easily access those licit savings along their journey. Third, the ubiquity of informal agents could lead to service expansion. Can trusted informal money agents be co-opted and certified within a legal framework in much the same way that Uber has recruited its drivers?
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