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 Mafia Meets the Black Axe

The Sicilian Mafia has parlayed human suffering into profits for over 150 years now. So the hundreds of thousands of refugees who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean don’t pose a threat to Cosa Nostra. They present a brand-new business opportunity.

Because of a recent drug charge, Samora Santi wasn’t allowed to leave his apartment building after dark. So we sat on the broken stone steps of his musty, unlit stairwell to talk. He lives in Ballarò, an historic district in Sicily’s capital city of Palermo. During the day, the outdoor market—filled with stalls of Italian cheeses, freshly caught fish and artfully displayed fruit—is lovely enough to be a tourist trap. But at night, Ballarò loses its charm. It becomes a mafia town. There are brothels every few blocks, and the disembodied whistles of drug dealers announcing that they have product to sell echo through trash-strewn plazas.

A Ghanaian man in his late twenties with smooth dark skin and long eyelashes, Santi would be good-looking if it weren’t for the fact that part of his nose is missing: Someone had bitten a chunk of it off during a fight at the refugee shelter where Santi first stayed when he arrived in Italy in 2008. “There were no jobs in my village,” he said. “I had two sisters and three younger brothers, and there was no money to take care of any of us, so I decided to go.” It didn’t take him long to realize that the employment situation in Sicily wasn’t much better than the one he had left.

He managed to get a job arranging flowers at a shop, but lost it when he had to travel to Rome for a meeting about his immigration case. He tried earning money by parking cars and looked for work in construction, but the competition with the locals was too fierce. (Youth unemployment for native Italians hovers around 42 percent in Sicily.) “If you don’t have a friend or don’t have documents, it’s really difficult to get a job for us Africans,” he explained in his soft voice that occasionally drops to a whisper. “You really need to know someone.”