By Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie

The biggest refugee crisis in recorded history has engulfed continents, swung elections and fueled the rise of nativism.

It has also made a lot of people very, very rich. These are the stories of the CEOs, criminal masterminds, pencil-pushers and low-flying vultures who have figured out how to profit from global instability, also known as human suffering.



The Transporters

Francois (not his real name) is a charming and friendly man in his early 30s with blindingly white teeth and a neat goatee. He’s very well connected—one of our interviews took place in the compound of a close relative of the current prime minister of Niger—and his business has made him an upper-class citizen in Agadez. He runs a fleet of vehicles: 10 white 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickup trucks and six Toyota Land Cruisers that he sends between Libya and Agadez. But he never does the driving himself. He’s merely a truck owner, one of the cushiest jobs to have in the human migration business. He leaves the risky stuff to his drivers.

Every Monday, a military convoy leaves Agadez for Libya to escort legitimate (or “legitimate”) businesses that conduct trade between the two countries. Many migrant truck drivers tag along, paying around $400 in bribes and tolls for the privilege of doing so. But Francois’ fleet avoids this route, preferring secret paths through the desert that circumvent the many roadblocks, bribes and vehicle searches that hamper traditional routes. This also allows him to ship cargo of a more illicit nature.

Polishing off a plate of french fries at an Agadez hotel restaurant, he illustrated his business model with a napkin and a pack of cigarettes. He unfolded the napkin. “These are the migrants,” he said. Then he placed the pack of cigarettes on the table. “But this is where we make the money,” he continued, draping the napkin over the cigarettes. “The migrants—they’re just a cover.”