29th Sep 2023

Smugglers cash in on EU migrant obstacles

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

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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.

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