28th Feb 2024

People-smuggling profits at historic high, EU concedes

  • 'Never before has the smuggling business been so profitable, so deadly,' said EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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The European Commission says migrant smuggling has never been so profitable or so deadly — despite a decade of policies and so-called action plans to crush the trade.

"Never before has the smuggling business been so profitable, so deadly," said European commission president Ursula Von der Leyen on Tuesday (28 November).

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Its 2015 action plan against migrant smuggling, since updated, came with promises, so-called 'tool boxes', and long-term strategies and partnerships with countries outside the European Union.

When pressed on how a decade of ideas and proposals to curb the smuggling business has actually led to a historic profits among smugglers, the European Commission was unable to provide answers.

"We have to understand this in a broader context of organised criminal landscape," responded Ylva Johansson, the EU's home affairs commissioner.

Asked if state-perpetrated pushbacks created business opportunities for smugglers, Johansson said EU states had an obligation to protect their borders.

An internal report the EU's police agency Europol, cited by London-based NGO Statewatch, says the demand for people-smugglers has indeed increased. But it also 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.

Now the Brussels executive wants to create a global alliance against smuggling and put Europol agents on the ground in countries outside the EU.

This follows a closed-door conference in Brussels, also on Tuesday, that included over a dozen ministers of interiors from around Europe and elsewhere.

Ministers from Colombia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Morocco, Moldova, Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Pakistan and Turkey were among the speakers, according to an attendance sheet.

Tunisia was a notable absence — in light of a recent agreement with the EU to curb departures of people seeking to land on Italian shores by boats.

So too was Niger, which had been courted by the EU over the years until a military coup overthrew its government in July.

It is also a main transit country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert.

Last weekend, it repealed its migrant-smuggling law from 2015, leading to fears at the commission that more people will attempt to take boats from Libya towards Italy.

No one has yet to make any firm commitments to the commission's alliance.

At a follow up press conference, Johansson tabled two new proposals. One is a regulation on police cooperation, with a key role for Europol.

"Perhaps most significantly, Europol will be given the possibility to deploy on the ground, both in member states and in third countries," noted Johansson.

This comes with an extra €50m for the Hague-based agency and an additional 50 personnel. The second is a directive that updates a 20 year old so-called 'facilitators package'.

The directive defines smugglers as a criminal offence when there is a clear monetary gain, when there is a high risk of serious physical harm, and when people are told over the internet how to transit into the EU.

"There is no risk of criminalising those that do the humanitarian assistance," said Johansson.

Since 2017, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain, initiated 63 administrative or criminal proceedings affecting search-and-rescue operations by civil society, according to the Fundamental Rights Agency.

The two new proposals also comes ahead of a wider push to finalise a contentious overhaul of the EU's asylum and migration rules, possibly on 7 December, that critics say will likely lead to mass detentions and rights violations.

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