The ongoing migration and refugee crisis tops the agenda at a meeting of EU political leaders in the Maltese capital, Valletta. Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, captured the urgency of the situation when he told the European Parliament in late January: “The European Union will be seriously tested unless we act now.”
The backdrop to this meeting is a dystopian image of Europe threatened by a migrant invasion of epic proportions managed by a criminal cartel of smugglers and traffickers. This nightmare vision continues to fuel resurgent populist and extreme right political parties. Containment and prevention of migrants reaching the EU plus efforts to strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Libya are widely seen as necessary political responses.
But there’s a risk that the EU could be going about this all wrong. Closing the EU’s borders endangers those migrants determined to travel who are left with little option but to use people smugglers. In turn, this is strengthening smuggling networks rather than weakening them. A more durable response to the current crisis could be to widen existing channels for entry by migrants and refugees. Greater openness can reduce migration pressures, save lives and undercut the people smugglers.
The smuggling business
Increased migration flows are widely seen as a threat to Europe’s borders. But if this belief is based on the view that a strong, functioning border is there only to limit cross-border flows, then it is mistaken. Creating some openings in borders does not necessarily mean the abandonment of controls. Pathways for regular migration can strengthen border controls because they move migrants from disorderly and irregular routes to more orderly ones.
The EU’s own mobility partnerships – bilateral deals between EU member states and some of its neighbours over migration – are recognition of this. They aim to balance efforts at control with some opening for regular migration, although EU member states have been very reluctant to open new pathways.
The challenge is enormous and there are no easy solutions. People smuggling is a big, diverse and highly creative “business”, often profiting from human misery. It’s also a business that adapts swiftly to changed circumstances. In 2014 and 2015, attention focused on an Eastern Mediterranean route through Turkey and then on to Greece.
Then in 2016, the direction of travel for migrants crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe changed. Tighter controls were introduced in Greece and Turkey. The EU reached a deal with Turkey to try to stem the flows. One effect was to send more than 181,000 people via a central Mediterranean route through Libya towards Italy in 2016. The cost was high. More than 4,500 men, women and children were reported dead or missing that year.
In late January 2017, the EU Commission called for action to be taken rapidly to fight smuggling and “stem the flows” of migrants and refugees. EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherhini, said additional action was needed to break the business model of the smuggler. This would include assistance to the fragile Libyan government.
EU leaders want to stop migrants from embarking on hazardous journeys. Ideally, migrants would be persuaded not to leave their countries of origin. This approach is not new. Back in 2004, the European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, was set up to promote cooperation between national border authorities. In 2015, the EU’s heads of government tripled the budget for Frontex’s joint-operations – called Triton and Poseidon – in the Mediterranean. In the same year, the EUNAVFOR MED operation – or Sophia – was set up to disrupt the business model of smugglers by seizing their boats and confiscating their assets.
Show of force on borders could backfire
All agree that saving lives at sea is a humanitarian imperative, but a policy focused only on containment and prevention of migration can be counterproductive. Sea border operations are often inefficient as the evolution of smuggling across the Mediterranean demonstrates with dramatic clarity. Not only has the huge area to be patrolled hindered the extent of these operations and prompted spiralling financial costs, but blocking smuggling networks in one area has redirected unauthorised migration flows to different routes.
The tightening of border control also exposes migrants to greater dangers. As smugglers are aware of the risks of their own business, they seek to limit the chances of apprehension by employing a variety of strategies. These include making longer and therefore more dangerous journeys, choosing unsafe points of embarkation and disembarkation, adopting riskier manoeuvres to escape authorities, and abandoning their “cargo” on vessels in rough seas.
Tougher border controls may trigger a vicious dynamic. Efforts to disrupt smugglers can lead to increased sophistication by the smuggling gangs. Social media is used both to advertise their services and, during crossings, alert the smugglers to border guard movements and potential arrest.
The EU does urgently need a more effective response to the growing numbers of people moving along the central Mediterranean route, as well as to the migration and refugee crisis more generally. To save lives and undercut the smugglers this response needs to strike a new balance. Regular pathways for people to move across the Mediterranean to Europe are a necessary component of this response. Opening such pathways is not politically popular. But keeping things as they are means continued loss of life and fuels the people smuggling business. The wider risk is that the longer this drags on, the EU itself is damaged in the eyes of its own citizens and the wider world.