29th Feb 2024

Smugglers cash in on EU migrant obstacles

  • Europol says 'technical obstacles' are fuelling demand for smuggler services (Photo: euobserver)
Listen to article

In the wake of mass drownings off the Greek coast, EU leaders at a summit in Brussels are seeking to further clamp down on smuggling while shoring up deals with countries such as Tunisia to prevent people from fleeing.

"The tragedy in the Mediterranean showed again the ruthless way smugglers and traffickers are operating," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Thursday (29 June).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Mark Rutte, the prime minster of the Netherlands, made similar comments. " [The] cynical business model of the smugglers has to be broken," he said.

But the fight against smugglers and their business models has been part of various European Commission strategies for almost a decade now.

It has also come with promises, so-called tool boxes, and long-term strategies and partnerships with countries outside the European Union.

"We are taking measures to combat cruel and opportunistic people smugglers by disrupting their business model," said Frans Timmermans, EU Commission vice-president, in 2015.

This included proposals to step up cooperation with countries of origin, as well as an ill-fated attempt to get EU states to relocate arriving asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

Eight years later and the smuggling trade continues to flourish amid ever-increasing risks for those attempting to gain protection in Europe.

In the span of those eight years, the International Organisation for Migration, a UN offshoot, says over 24,000 have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean.

It says increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search-and-rescue capacity, and restrictions on the life-saving work of NGOs have contributed to the loss of life.

But for its part, the EU Commission says it sees no discrepancy.

And it has since announced a recent anti-smuggling partnership with Tunisia and offered two additional boats to a militia-linked Libyan coast guard.

In a letter addressed to EU leaders ahead of the summit, Von der Leyen called for "out of the box" solutions.

She also appealed for EU states to come up with a credible plan to resettle refugees, as another means to help break the smugglers' business model.

That is likely a big ask.

Last year, the majority of EU states did not resettle a single refugee.

Just under 17,000 were hosted — with most ending up in Germany (4,787), Sweden (4,535), and France (3,136).

EU states have since made 29,000 pledges for resettlement and humanitarian admission combined for this year.

Almost half of these pledges are earmarked for Afghan citizens at risk.

The EU Commission says that as of April 2023, almost 45,000 Afghans have arrived safely in the EU through humanitarian admission linked to pledges.

Others not resettled or unable to enter the EU are likely to seek out the services of smugglers. But it comes at a price.

A 2017 report by the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank, said a spot on a boat leaving Libya in 2013 and 2014 went for around $1,000 [€865], then dropped to $250 in 2015 and 2016, and then to around as little as $90 in 2017.

Fees skyrocket

But those fees appear to have skyrocketed since then, posing questions for the EU's long-standing efforts to break the model of business smugglers.

Greek authorities said survivors of the 14 June shipwreck paid $4,500 [€4.134] each for a journey that started in Egypt, picked up passengers in Libya, and then headed towards Italy.

Europol, the EU's police agency, says migrant smuggling to Italy had almost doubled in 2021 compared to the previous year.

They say smugglers continue to organise departures from Libya and Tunisia in rubber, wooden, or fibreglass boats.

It also offered estimates on other routes, noting that a leisure boat leaving from Turkey to Italy can cost up to €12,000 per person.

Someone trying to reach Europe via Belarus from Iraq may pay €13,000. And even smuggling within the EU is expensive, with fees from Romania to Germany ranging between €4,000 and €5,000.

An internal Europol report, cited by London-based NGO Statewatch, says the demand for smugglers has increased.

It says this demand "is fuelled by increased push factors in key regions of origin combined with the increase in technical obstacles."

Statewatch says those 'technical obstacles' include border walls, surveillance technologies, and other forms of border controls that fall within the remit of the EU and its member states.

EU leaders sideline Hungary and Poland over migration

EU leaders at their summit on Friday sidelined Poland and Hungary over a wider dispute on migration and asylum. Slovenia's prime minister Robert Golob explicitly laid most of the blame on Budapest.

Germany speeds up Georgia and Morocco asylum returns

Germany is expanding agreements to return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin as part of a wider shift in Europe to curtail migration. Berlin has reached deals with Georgia and Morocco since December.


Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?

Fewer than one-in-ten Ukrainian refugees intend to settle permanently outside Ukraine, according to new research by the associate director of research and the director of gender and economic inclusion at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

Latest News

  1. Belgium braces for Flemish far-right gains, deadlock looms
  2. Podcast: Hyperlocal meets supranational
  3. Von der Leyen appeals for 'new EU defence mindset'
  4. EU supply chain law fails, with 14 states failing to back it
  5. Joined-up EU defence procurement on the horizon?
  6. Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant
  7. Amazon lobbyists banned from EU Parliament
  8. MEPs adopt new transparency rules for political ads

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us