Trip no.8: Illicit Trade in the Netherlands

Keywords: Netherlands, illicit trade, Rotterdam Port, international trade, customs
Borders crossed: 2

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         After my week in Krakow I flew back to the Netherlands (no queuing for border control!) to the city of Groningen where I’d spent 4 months living and studying at the beginning of my Master’s. I was there to help run a 1-week Summer School on the juicy topic of Illicit Trade, as part of the university’s International Relations department. Groningen is another historic university city and very typically Dutch in appearance, with houseboats lined along its many canals and bicycles absolutely everywhere. I mostly fly into Groningen, but my student budget has also seen me try out the train route via the Eurostar tunnel (9 hours if you’re not delayed – unadvisable), and even the bus route via a cross-Channel ferry (14 hours – and don’t dare go at night – dreadful), proving that the UK is not as cut off or distant from mainland Europe as many Brexiteers might claim. The white cliffs of Dover are in fact within eyesight of France, only 21 miles (33km) from Calais.

         The Illicit Trade Summer School was an intensive crash course on how criminal networks, terrorists and dictators conduct their trafficking of drugs, arms, humans, organs, blood diamonds and counterfeit goods, and how they then conceal their ill-gotten millions through money laundering and offshore tax havens. It’s too complex a topic to explain in detail here (look out for the 2018 edition of the Summer School if I’ve piqued your interest!) but the short answer is: they exploit different jurisdictions. By hopping from one country to another, by diverting funds from one offshore account into another, they evade the national authorities who can only operate within their own jurisdictions. These illicit traders cross borders, where the authorities cannot.

         Our guest lecturers spent the week teaching students how to track down and tackle these illicit traders by learning the techniques they use: how to exploit the internet though Open Source Intelligence tools, how to set up offshore accounts, money laundering rings and how to evade sanctions.

         On the fourth day we took students on a tour of Rotterdam Port, the largest port in Europe at 41 miles2 (105 km2) with an annual throughput of 461 million tonnes of cargo. Gigantic ships load and offload their several thousands of containers in this port for transportation elsewhere in Europe, of which only 2.5% of containers are actually inspected for illegal goods. Technology improvements in Rotterdam are enabling better scanning and sensors to detect illegal materials, but worldwide the standards of different ports are far lower and corruption is rife in the shipping industry, with border guards often paid to look the other way when certain shipments of ivory or drugs arrive. The vast majority of Rotterdam’s trade is of course legal, and it’s the world’s most technically advanced and automated port, making it efficient and speedy. This led me to consider another consequence of the UK’s ‘hard’ border after Brexit: the additional trade tariffs, customs checks and border delays for importing and exporting cargo, estimated to cost £1 billion annually to the economy.[1]

         On the final day of our course, experts from Interpol delivered a session on how to organise the international response to these international crimes and how to pool resources across multiple countries. It highlighted to me the importance of working transnationally in our globalised world, of sharing intelligence and transcending national borders just as these criminals do. ‘Hard’ borders are an alternative solution to crack down on free movement of goods, although our visit to Rotterdam Port taught me just how easy it is to slip through border inspections with a bribe here and there. The week’s subject matter was a timely reminder of the global direction that trade, the economy, the workforce, our lifestyles and the world at large is steering. There may be a nationalist turn in certain countries’ politics, but this doesn’t stop the force of globalisation from steaming ahead regardless.


[1] Michael Savage, “Brexit border chaos will cause huge delays and cost £1bn a year, says report,” The Guardian, last modified July 30, 2017,

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