A street money exchanger waits for trade in the town of Soran in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo: Andrés Mourenza

A lack of legal migration routes to Europe has been a boon to intermediaries operating in the informal “hawala” financial system that serves as both a bank for smugglers and as an insurer for migrants, this investigation finds.

Dating back to the days of the Silk Road, hawala is an informal system for transferring money that is based on interpersonal trust and makes cash tough to track.

This investigation, carried out over the past year by a cross-border team of six journalists, exposes how tightening migration policies have caused migrants and asylum seekers to fall prey to unscrupulous smugglers. It also shows that many migrants turn to hawala as the only way to mitigate the risk of being scammed.

The journalists involved were Elena Ledda (project coordinator), Andrés Mourenza, Priyanka Shankar, Iliana Papangeli, Andrea Giambartolomei and Emma Yeomans.

The team conducted on-the-ground reporting in Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom. They also went undercover on Telegram, where alleged smugglers offer their services to people seeking refuge in Europe.

The team spoke with more than 50 sources, including smugglers, hawala brokers and experts in the hawala system; people on the move; families of people who drowned in the English Channel; and security and judicial sources from various countries.

See the stories below.

Mustafa Mina Nabi stands in one of the rooms of the Association of Returned Migrants from Europe to KRG, where the portraits of those who died trying to emigrate to Europe hang from the walls. One of the portraits is of his son, Zanyar Mustafa Mina, who drowned in the English Channel in November 2021. Photo: Andrés Mourenza

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