On 9 June 2020, the EU Delegation to Kenya, acting in coordination with the ENACT project, held a virtual conference which addressed the issue of COVID-19 and transnational organised crime.
Four panellists, who are working for the ENACT project, reviewed the impact of the ongoing pandemic on the following criminal markets: trafficking in heroin, smuggling in human beings, the illicit trade in falsified medicines, as well as the implications of COVID-19 for terrorist and violent extremist groups. A common theme throughout the presentations was that, although in view of the pandemic one might expect criminals to be restricted in their movements as a result of government-imposed lockdown measures, this does not necessarily mean that their business is down. Indeed, in some instances –in particular when it comes to the illicit trafficking in medicines- the illicit market is actually on the rise. The main points highlighted in the presentations on 9 June were the following:
Trafficking in heroin:
There appears to be no evidence that COVID-19 has influenced in one way or another the supply of drugs –including heroin- into East Africa. The onward transport of heroin via air links to Europe (through the use of drug mules) has become more difficult in view of the closure of air space. There has also been a slowdown in demand for drugs due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Some criminal groups have resorted to selling adulterated drugs, which –although cheaper- may have an adverse impact on the health of users;
COVID-19 imposed travel restrictions and tightening of border controls have made the business of human smuggling more difficult for criminal syndicates. This has resulted in a lull in human smuggling activities or in situations where migrants are left stranded by the smugglers. The underlying causes for migration, however, remain intact and the demand for human smuggling can only be expected to increase in the future, as COVID-19 is creating socio-economic downturn and poverty in many countries. The price for human smuggling services can be expected to go up, while the risks to migrants are also increasing;
Distribution of fake pharmaceuticals:
The illicit trade in falsified medicines and the black market in genuine medicines are increasing worldwide, including in East Africa. The trend is exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, as people are looking to buy COVID-19 remedies, whether from regular or irregular sources. Criminal syndicates sell counterfeit medicines to people, who do not have access to regular health care systems. Furthermore criminals infiltrate pharmaceutical companies and siphon off regular medicines into the black market. People can buy such medicine on the black market without medical prescriptions. This practice also presents health risks to users and may lead to addiction (e.g.use of opioids);
Terrorism and violent extremism:
The assumption is sometimes made that in the face of COVID-19 countries will redirect their focus and resources to combat the virus, thereby leaving a vacuum which terrorist and violent extremist groups will fill. For now, however, there is no conclusive evidence that demonstrates clear links between COVID-19 and any increases in terrorist attacks. Some groups, including Al-Shahab, try to portray COVID-19 as a curse by Allah on the Western world and use this narrative to try and recruit disciples for their cause.
Simon Mordue, the EU Ambassador and Head of Delegation to the Republic of Kenya, commended the research activities undertaken by the ENACT project, including the ongoing work to analyse the impact of COVID-19 on the operations by criminal syndicates worldwide and in East Africa. The Head of Delegation mentioned that it is very important for the EU to better understand the dynamics of transnational organised crime. “The rising trend in transnational organised crime in Africa is worrying”, the Ambassador said, “as crime goes hand in hand with corruption, money-laundering and –in some cases- terrorist financing. These phenomena undermine socio-economic development and the good functioning of public institutions. All this runs counter to the objectives of our very substantial EU development co-operation efforts, which are intended to help our African partner countries fight poverty and instability”.