Migrant Smuggling: How Should the EU and its Members States Respond?

The Mediterranean Sea has proven once more it is today’s most dangerous border between Europe and Africa. Only 28 people could be rescued when a boat capsized last weekend, meaning that a further 800 perished at sea, including young children. Up to April 2015, 1600 people have lost their lives in an attempt to reach the ‘promised land’. This commentary focuses on one aspect of this complex phenomenon – migrant smuggling. It argues that the EU needs to address the root causes of migrant smuggling in order to prioritize human rights within its migration policies and to take preventive action.

Last year was a record high for migrant smuggling, with an estimated 350000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea irregularly. Many were refugees fleeing conflict and instability in Africa and the Middle East.

Migrant smuggling presents the EU with new challenges, and blurs the lines between the various forms of migration that confront policy-makers. The trend is increasingly towards mixed migration, which underscores the fact that refugees and economic migrants often use the same routes and smugglers to reach the same destinations. To complicate things further, the smuggling trade may be professionalizing. For example, to reduce the risks to the smugglers themselves, rescue operations encounter ‘ghost-ships’, which are abandoned by their crew in the hope that migrants will be rescued by EU vessels. Alternatively, some boats are ‘captained’ by migrants themselves in return for “free” passage to Europe.

Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi has called for an EU summit on the issue but how should the EU and its member states act to curb migrant smuggling? A careful balance is required between the sometimes conflicting obligations of ensuring refugee status to those forced to flee their countries, on the one hand, while combatting illegal and irregular migration, on the other. The following analysis calls for an EU response to migrant smuggling that centres on issuing humanitarian visas for safe legal channels to the EU, and raising awareness among migrants of the dangers such journeys entail.

Paradoxically, curbing irregular migration is sometimes a pull factor
Efforts by the EU to counter smuggling have in some ways proven counterproductive. Unfortunately, the dismantling of smuggling networks has led to more advanced operations by smugglers while stricter border controls lead to the use of new routes, which can prove more dangerous. Because they are indebted to criminal groups or individuals – such as the mafia – smuggled persons are inherently vulnerable and may be harmed not only during their journey but also upon arrival.

Dismantling smuggling networks does not always help (future) victims
Recent research indicates that 80 percent of irregular migration to Europe is facilitated by smugglers. Smugglingnetworks consist of well-organized criminal groups but they are also often loosely composed, requiring agile responses from authorities. As one constructive response, Britain’s modern slavery bill introduces life sentences for traffickers and stresses the protection of victims.

Smuggling is a highly profitable illicit activity with a relatively low risk of detection. Instability in Libya, Syria and Eritrea, for instance, forces refugees and migrants to pay smugglers to facilitate their travel – and the sums are often exorbitant. A journey can take years during and victims may be kidnapped, exploited or sold before reaching their final destination, if they ever get there.

The willingness to pay for smuggling services to Europe puts victims at risk; not everyone sees himself or herself as a victim. Therefore, they do not take into account the dangers of exploitation and extortion. For example, paying often leads smugglers to ask for more money, which can result in debt bondage, keeping the victim as security for the repayment for a debt. Additionally, often smugglers do not see themselves as criminals but rather as service providers. This is belied by the fact that both migrants and smugglers frequently embellish the possible future that smuggled migrants can expect upon their arrival in Europe.

Decreasing acceptance of refugees puts more people at risk
While almost all EU member states are quick to call for action to help victims of migrant smuggling, the data show that actual numbers of approved asylum applications are actually decreasing. The UK, which has a particular history of hosting refugees, has given refuge only to around 100 Syrian refugees. Germany has pledged to host 30,000 Syrians but its willingness might be tempered by the current demonstrations against immigrants.

The crisis in the Mediterranean is also exacerbating tensions between EU member states. On the one hand, southern EU countries – which are bound by the Dublin Regulation to process asylum requests from migrants which enter their territory – have asked northern states to share the burden more equitably. The implementation of this rule, however, appears to be waning. A recent influx of Eritrean refugees has caused some Dutch politicians to accuse Italy and Greece of not adhering to European regulations while these countries counter that they are overwhelmed by the current numbers of refugees and unsupported by other member states.

Better coordination is certainly necessary but not sufficient. Though some member states would like to see a division of refugees per member state, governing parties in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands are calling for tighter border controls or even the closing of EU borders.

Possible solutions
1. As the nature of the challenge faced by the EU rapidly evolves, further research is desperately needed to enable an evidence-based response to the problem. There are nevertheless a number of principles which should inform immediate EU action.

The principles underlying an EU response also matter. Migrant smuggling cannot be curbed solely by a criminal law response. Rather, the EU should also take up the concrete proposals made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which include opening more legal pathways for migration. It is, in part, the lack of legal channels for entry to EU territory that is forcing migrants to risk their lives.

2. The EU and its Member States are confronted with conflicting pressures regarding mixed migration. On the one hand, NGOs, international organizations and states, including Turkey, are calling on the EU to pledge to accept more refugees. On the other hand, domestic public opinion in many European states charge that there are already “too many” migrants within their borders, and that immigration is having a negative effect on public service availability, social cohesion and even public safety.

The UK, Germany and the Netherlands seem to prefer a policy approach characterized by tighter border controls, hosting a limited number of refugees and better coordination between member states to ensure strict policy implementation. This is only part of the solution. With smugglers using new tactics, a genuinely international strategy is required that curbs migrant smuggling and prevents the loss of life.

Accordingly, the EU and its member states could start by focusing on reducing demand by providing socio-economic development support for migrants’ country of origin. By operating at an earlier stage of the journey, humanitarian organizations could provide safe havens to prevent migrants from risking their lives. Member states can establish embassies or safe havens in surrounding countries where people flee to seek international protection, with the possibility to apply for a visa of whatever kind.

3. Increasing awareness of the dangers of irregular migration could also reduce the demand and the willingness of migrants to accept smuggling conditions. Demand can also be reduced by exposing the truth about the abuse, exploitation and trauma that awaits in Europe.

4. Member states should find means to equally divide asylum applications or at least stop sending undocumented asylum seekers back to the country of first arrival. Policies against migrant smuggling could then become truly victim-centered, enabling the EU to abide by its refugee convention obligations. It seems increasingly difficult for Italy to register the immense number of migrants and their asylum applications. Although member states support Italy in Operation Triton by patrolling the seas in their own vessels (though with only one third of the expenditureof Italy’s discontinued Mare Nostrum program), member states are not responsible for documenting rescued migrants, as is the first country of arrival. Consequently, the operating pressure has not decreased, leaving the opportunity for migrants to easily travel without documentation to other member states.

Finally, if Europe can implement such reforms, an actual solution may be at hand. Although it is understandable that governments have to weigh their options and protect national interests, the least Europe can do is to act in accordance with the human rights it promotes.

The authors would like to thank Marcella Mizzi and Elko Brummelman for their contribution to this commentary.

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