Drug-related corruption in Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam

Shipping containers stacked in a shipyard, photo by chungking/Adobe Stock

Photo by chungking/Adobe Stock

Employees may be less inclined to report suspicious behaviour due to social pressures in the workplace.

What is the issue?

Due to high-quality physical, digital and knowledge infrastructure in the Netherlands, the Dutch main ports are important hubs in the global economy and function as a gateway to the European market. Schiphol Airport is one of Europe's largest airports while the Port of Rotterdam is Europe's largest container and bulk port. However, their sophisticated facilities make these main ports attractive targets for organised crime groups looking to traffic illicit substances and goods such as drugs, thereby increasing corruption risks. While it is the case that some these illicit goods are intended for the domestic Dutch market, most drugs appear to be smuggled into the European hinterland via road, water, or rail links.

Awareness of the risk of corruption at the port of Rotterdam and at Schiphol Airport has increased in recent years, particularly due to reports of corruption cases at these main ports. While consciousness of this problem has resulted in increased investment in tackling corruption, it remains a highly complex problem that is difficult to map and requires a holistic approach to fully grasp. Given the recent focus on corruption in the ports of Rotterdam and Schiphol, and the concern that there is no overall picture of corruption risks and available policy tools to counter this threat, the House of Representatives requested the government to set up a new and independent scientific study into the possible vulnerabilities in the integrity policies of organisations involved in supervision, enforcement, detection and regulation/licensing (the so-called ‘THOR organisations’) in the two main ports. As a result, the Research and Data Centre (Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Datacentrum or WODC), at the request of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, commissioned RAND Europe in 2022 to conduct a study on drug-related corruption threats at Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam.

How did we help?

Due to the limited success of past studies that sought to analyse case files and interviews to gain insights into the vulnerabilities of THOR organisations regarding influence attempts by organised crime groups, a research design grounded in expert judgment was deemed a more promising approach. Consequently, the decision was made to adopt the National Risk Assessment (NRA) methodology for this study. This method involves following a structured process with a group of experts with the aim of understanding vulnerabilities and threats without focusing on individual cases.

One of the main objectives of this study is therefore to test whether the methodology can meaningfully contribute to identifying potential corruption threats at the Netherlands’ largest main ports. Additionally, the study aims to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Contextualise potential characteristics of the main ports that may make them vulnerable to corruption.
  • Identify the greatest risks for each port.
  • Assess the potential impact of these risks and develop policies to prevent and suppress corruption.
  • Identify potential risks that may become reality in the future and explore policy tools to mitigate these future risks.

What did we find?

Although bribery is likely the predominant corrupting mechanism in the main ports, other modi operandi are likely to be at play as well, creating a sequential process that leads to corruption.

The study found that bribery is still perceived to be the main mechanism through which actors in the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport are corrupted. However, participants underscored that various methods – including not only bribery but also violence, blackmail and pressure through social or romantic relationships – are frequently employed in conjunction with one another, functioning as building blocks in a sequence of events that culminate in corruption.

Employees may be less inclined to report suspicious behaviour due to social pressures in the workplace.

Other dynamics can likewise play an important role in this process towards corruption. For both main ports, participants indicated that workplace culture can contribute to the threat of corruption as employees who witness criminal actions are pressured not to fulfil their reporting obligations through peer pressure, an informal code of silence and/or strong social controls. The study recommends that improving our understanding of the professional environments and dynamics at play within the complex structures of main ports may be crucial for further policy development in this area.

The study found that while steps have been taken in recent years to improve the resilience of the main ports, certain vulnerabilities remain, especially with regard public actors and actors with key positions in the supply chain.

By consulting with experts, a number of key vulnerabilities were identified that have not previously received much attention in existing literature on the topic of corruption in the main ports. We found that in the opinion of experts, Schiphol Airport is still particularly vulnerable to corruption among those who plan shifts and so-called ‘brokers’, individuals who leverage their networks to place certain people in key positions in the supply chain. It is also worth noting that the experts noted that they did not feel that adequate measures are currently in place to mitigate the resulting risks. At the same time, experts confirmed findings from previous studies by underscoring the potential consequences of corruption of public officials, particularly in law enforcement.

Whilst there are some limitations to the method, the NRA methodology provides a structured approach to mapping and prioritizing risks and policy instruments.

There are some limitations regarding the application of the NRA methodology throughout the study. For example, the expert consultation process involved a relatively limited group of eight to twenty experts, which may result in potential blind spots. Furthermore, the quantitative scores given during consultations may have been influenced by how corruption threats or impact criteria were described by the researchers. It also proved challenging to establish a comprehensive list of policy instruments due to incomplete public disclosure of information. Despite these mentioned limitations, the methodology provides a structured approach to risk identification and analysis using expert judgement by offering effective triggers for experts to share their opinions constructively with the group.