25th Mar 2023


Stop smugglers making a profit from migrants

This year was a lethal year for migrants. In October, more than 360 people, migrants from Africa desperate to reach EU shores, drowned when their boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa, in the single deadliest migrant shipwreck on record.

At the end of that same month, 92 migrants – 52 children, 33 women and seven men – were found dead in Niger. Believed to be on a desperate journey to North Africa and onward to Europe, they died of thirst after their vehicles broke down in the Sahara Desert.

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  • Migration on the agenda for EU leaders at the summit on 19 and 20 December (Photo: Hans Op De Beeck)

Migrant smuggling is a deadly business.

Though the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea pose formidable obstacles, many continue to undertake the same perilous journeys. The Mediterranean has long been the scene of such tragedies as people flee war, instability and poverty in surrounding regions.

Already since the start of December hundreds more migrants have been rescued from the waters near Lampedusa.

It is clear that this horrific situation cannot be allowed to continue.

A European Commission task force has proposed measures aimed at preventing the death of more migrants in the Mediterranean. These are to be discussed by EU leaders at the summit on 19 and 20 December.

A key area addressed by the proposal - and one that has received little attention so far - is the need to go after the ruthless criminals who profit from these tragic events.

Nearly all irregular migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean to EU shores rely on the service of smugglers, who prey on desperation and who see the loss of lives in Lampedusa and Niger as just a consequence of doing business.

If we are to keep tragedies like these from happening again, states must do more to stop these smugglers, go after the organized crime networks and help the migrants.

Migrant smuggling is a serious crime, and a highly profitable one.

Smugglers charge from a couple of hundreds of dollars to $50,000 per person, depending on the journey. According to research by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, –migrant smuggling from East, North and West Africa to Europe, from Southeast and East Asia to Europe and the Americas and from South to North America - generate around $8.3 billion a year for criminals operating along these routes alone.

It is a global industry that offers much reward and little risk to organized criminals, especially those at the top.

Smugglers are not deterred or threatened by existing policies and measures, which are too often limited to border control and intercepting irregular migrants, who may have entered a country without the requisite documents.

The risks are all on the migrant’s side, as has clearly been seen.

The smuggled migrants are vulnerable to abuse at all stages of their passage. Survivors of the October Lampedusa shipwreck have reported that the smugglers raped and tortured dozens of victims. Fearing police and deportation, in desperate need for money and deprived from “legal” work, smuggled migrants are also easy prey for human traffickers en route or at destination.

Stopping migrant smuggling requires firstly recognizing that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem.

Secondly, it requires making better use of law enforcement resources through building up intelligence-led investigative capacities to prevent and disrupt migrant smuggling at the earliest stages possible – before migrants are put into a boat, stranded in transit or end up in a sweatshop in Europe to pay off money lenders.

Moreover, criminalizing migrant smuggling should not be confused with the criminalization of irregular migration. Anti-smuggling laws should by definition target the criminals who facilitate illegal entry, who cram their human cargo into unsafe boats and vehicles.

At the same time, governments must do more to protect the rights of migrants, regardless of their legal status, and to take into account the special protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees, children and victims of trafficking. This is enshrined in the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, which 138 countries have ratified.

Strong national border control responses alone only cause smugglers to adapt their methods and change routes, potentially making the journey more dangerous still, but with little impact on the organized crime networks that are at work.

Shifting the focus from reaction to prevention requires strong cooperation among all states concerned – with those states having the skills, experiences and means assisting those states having less.

Wednesday, 18 December, is International Migrants Day, established in 2000 to promote the protection of the rights of all migrants. By working together to go after the smugglers, states can help to deter organized crime groups, and protect migrants and prevent human rights violations.

We cannot continue to let crime pay for the criminals, as desperate people pay with their lives.

The writer is the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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