Home / Our news and views / Journey without end: if human smuggling and high migrant flows are here to stay, as some surmise, then what policy implications?

Journey without end: if human smuggling and high migrant flows are here to stay, as some surmise, then what policy implications?


BRUSSELS – In its latest annual risk analysis, Frontex – the EU’s border and coast guard agency – estimates that 382,000 people migrated to EU member states in 2016. That is down from 2015’s record number, but it remains huge by historical standards. In addition, 181,459 people arrived in Italy, or 18 percent more than in 2015, with big increases in flows from West Africa.

Will these migrant flows ever go down? Or will they continue, putting pressure on European borders and national European politics for years to come?

According to one group, the answer is no. The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC) says these numbers won’t go down anytime soon – and may even rise. Why? Because a massive infrastructure of human smuggling and trafficking networks, organised crime and cash-strapped state bureaucracies now runs like a well-oiled machine across Africa and the Middle East.

The Syrian crisis did not create this machine, but it did make it far more efficient, argues GITOC. And despite the EU’s best border-patrolling efforts, that machine is in little danger of breaking down.

Addressing a recent conference here hosted by the Hanns Seidel Stiftung, Ms Tuesday Reitano, GITOC’s deputy director, said migrant smuggling “has amplified a relatively straightforward refugee crisis. This is something new and different. It’s unprecedented, and it’s challenging all the ways that we traditionally respond.”

Reitano drew a distinction between human smuggling and human trafficking. Migrants smuggled across borders usually know their smugglers, who tend to speak the same language and may even come from the same region or village. The smugglers help migrants cross geographic, political, physical and cultural boundaries.

Noting that the “victim” of smuggling is not the migrant but the state whose borders are violated, she said human smugglers “are service providers: they don’t create their markets, but they do shape and expand them.”

By contrast, human trafficking is often non-consensual, or begins as consensual before becoming coercive. The victim, in this case, is the trafficked migrant. As opposed to local facilitators who often manage human smuggling rings, human trafficking rings tend to be dominated by organised criminals.

Moreover, whether a migrant is smuggled or trafficked often depends on where they are migrating from. The nations of the Economic Community of West Africa tend to be more stable and less repressive than those of East Africa. Their citizens also enjoy greater freedom of movement over borders, they often know their smugglers, and the cost of transit is affordable and usually paid up front, according to Reitano.

In many places local state bureaucracies have even come to depend upon human smuggling. For example, Reitano said that without the bribes received from smugglers and their clients, the police in northern Niger would not be able to buy fuel for their vehicles.

Overall, she described human smuggling as a ‘win-win-win’ for all involved. It’s positive for client migrants who get where they want to go, positive for the smugglers who earn money and even a ‘win’ for the complicit states whose officials receive bribes and whose economies benefit from the remittances sent back home by migrants.

Things couldn’t be more different in East Africa where repressive governments and dangerous borders have seen human trafficking displace smuggling, though both sides of the continent share one similarity: the participation of local governments.

“In Sudan and Eritrea, if the smugglers don’t have a government connection, they won’t be able to operate,” Reitano said. “More often than not, the traffickers are members of the state, or the military.”

And when smuggling becomes organised trafficking, prices and danger rise for the migrant. For that reason, Reitano said the EU’s moves to criminalise human smuggling may have actually worsened conditions for the migrants themselves.

“Human smuggling markets respond counterintuitively to law enforcement intervention,” she said. “They become more violent, more criminal and more lucrative. In the best case scenario, human smuggling has natural safeguards that protect both migrants and smugglers.”

As example, she pointed to the ‘escrow’ model used in Syria where migrants place their payments in escrow accounts held by honest-broker third parties such as restaurant owners. The smuggler did not get paid until the migrants arrived safely in Greece. By contrast, in the Horn of Africa migrants often pay nothing at the start. Instead, they make a promise to pay at the end of the trip, perhaps through money earned from working abroad. But when that promise can’t be honoured, they often pay through sexual abuse, forced labour, and extortion.

Reitano stressed that treating migrants and human smugglers like criminals will only worsen the problem. “With drugs, the people you arrest are usually the people you don’t want,” she says, suggesting that the smugglers captured usually have the least value. However, she offered no easy solutions to the problem. “People are trying to stop migrants, but they’re going to get where they’re going, come hell or high water.”

     THE UPSHOT: The EU’s stopgap approach to the migrant crisis isn’t working. The migrants won’t stop coming. They have little incentive to stay where they are, and the path to Europe is now well-greased. This suggests that a constant stream of arrivals will be a radicalising, populist-boosting, anti-EU force in European politics for years to come. Yet EU institutional discourse seems detached from this reality, with talk all about procedures: getting the migrants processed, having their relocations processed, ensuring the IDs and fingerprints are processed. Far more effort is needed to remove the causes at home that compel migrants to head for Europe.
     One root cause of migration, Reitano told SECURITY EUROPE, is the extreme disparity of opportunity between the migrants’ home countries and Europe. “Migration is the means by which those things [such as inequality] are resolved,” she said. “These flows are global… maybe we’ll stabilise Libya. But there’ll be another crisis.”


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