Saturday

25th May 2019

Opinion

Migrant smuggling: What are the EU options?

  • EU-bound migrants in Libya detention centre (Photo: Internews Network)

I met “Majid,” a 34-year old Palestinian from Syria, along with his wife and their four-year old son, in December in Serbia where they had arrived after a three-month journey through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia.

As Palestinian refugees from Syria without passports, they didn't feel secure in Lebanon or Turkey and they told me their hope was to reach Western Europe.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

To get there, they turned to the only available option: smuggling networks.

“We are forced to mingle with smugglers and mafia,” Majid told me. “If we knew we had to do this and if this was what we wanted we would have stayed in Syria.”

Majid and his wife paid more than €8,000 to smugglers to reach Serbia. They would have to pay much more to get to Austria, where they planned to lodge asylum claims.

Sadly, their story is not unique.

While doing research along the Balkan route, the third most highly travelled irregular path into the EU, I met hundreds of migrants and refugees who have fled violent conflict or endemic poverty, risking their lives by making the perilous sea and mainland border crossings in the hope of finding refuge in the EU.

But, instead of refuge, most encountered fences, pushbacks, and ill-treatment.

At an emergency summit in Brussels on 24 April, called after over 1,000 boat migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea, EU leaders focused more on preventing departures than on protecting people fleeing war, persecution or poverty.

We’ve heard a lot of misleading rhetoric from EU leaders about fighting traffickers.

Let’s be clear about the reality. Smugglers help migrants cross borders irregularly; migrants seek out their services. Smuggling, per se, is primarily a crime against a state.

While smugglers also bear responsibility for placing desperate migrants in life threatening situations and should be held accountable, smuggling is different to trafficking. Trafficking involves force, threats, or deception and exploitation against people’s will.

The migrants and asylum seekers I spoke to in the Balkans turned to smugglers because border controls were tough and there were no other options for reaching the EU in safety.

The majority knew or learned along the way that they could drown at sea, suffocate in overcrowded trucks, or be struck by a train in Macedonia.

I heard over and over again how they were willing to take risks to escape even worse situations in their home countries and to search for the safety they could not access through legal channels.

For those who learned the risks along the way, as Majid did, "it was too late to go back”.

Campaigns against smugglers, like pushbacks and violence at EU borders, will not make migrants and asylum seekers give up – fleeing people will simply adapt. So too will smugglers’ networks.

Enhanced border enforcement measures will make the trip more dangerous, migrants more vulnerable, and smugglers prone to charge more.

“Adan,” a 23-year old Kurd from Kobane, Syria, told me that he resorted to the more dangerous route across the Aegean Sea to avoid the fences Bulgaria and Greece have built along their land borders with Turkey. “The boat started leaking and we all would have drowned except that the Greek coast guard saw us and saved us," he recalls.

So, what should the EU do?

EU countries can start by increasing the number of refugees they resettle, granting more humanitarian visas, and easing restrictions on family reunification.

All EU countries should give asylum seekers access to fair asylum procedures and respect the obligation under international law not to send people back to places where they face threats to their lives or freedom.

The European Commission should do more to hold member states to account for illegal pushbacks and ill-treatment at their borders.

Finally, the EU should overhaul current rules that put an unfair share of responsibility on countries on the EU’s external borders, and ensure a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers.

The European Commission is set to issue a set of proposals towards a comprehensive migration agenda on 13 May.

As the EU continues to develop its response to a migration phenomenon that isn’t going to end, it should focus on human rights and asylum and not the 'keep ‘em out approach' that has cost so many lives and caused so much suffering.

Emina Cerimovic is a Koenig fellow with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

Disclaimer

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

EU mission could endanger refugees, UN warns

A senior UN official has warned the EU that “innocent refugees” will be “in the line of fire” of any operation to sink migrant smugglers’ boats.

A legal way to seek refuge in Europe

It is time for a European quota system that distributes asylum seekers between member states, writes Swedish MEP Cecilia Wikstrom.

EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'

The debate about the choice of name should not boil down to a political muscle show against Hungary, which opposes the reference to Magnitsky because of its political relations with the Russian government.

Voter turnout will decide Europe's fate

European voter turnout is in deep crisis. Since the early 2000s, the share of voters in national elections has fallen to 66 percent on average, which means that the birthplace of democracy now ranks below average globally.

News in Brief

  1. UK's May announces June 7 resignation date
  2. Ireland votes for EU election and divorce referendum
  3. Report: May to announce resignation plan on Friday
  4. Leading politicians: time for EU to have female leaders
  5. Poll: Finland's Green party to surge in EU elections
  6. High demand for postal voting in Denmark
  7. Some EU citizens turned away at UK polling stations
  8. Switzerland unlikely to sign draft EU deal

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Latest News

  1. Belgium votes in hybrid EU-national election
  2. Irish greens take Dublin in second EU exit poll
  3. EU election results to trigger top jobs scramble This WEEK
  4. Don't tell the Dutch - but Timmermans 'won'
  5. EU says goodbye to May with 'respect'
  6. Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?
  7. Italy train row exposes competing views of EU
  8. Dutch socialists on top in first EP election exit poll

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us