Ending the Profitable Business of Refugee/Migrant Smuggling on the Mediterranean Sea



**This post was written by our outgoing Public Education intern, Katherine Jacobs.**


The smuggling of refugees/migrants into and throughout Europe has grown from a significant challenge to a regional crisis. Refugees/migrants have been found suffocated on the sides of highways, confined in horrific conditions, subject to abuse and exploitation, and drowned out at sea. The passage to find security and better opportunities is dangerous, and nowhere is that more evident than in the journey across the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that from January 1 to 28 this year, 55,528 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to enter Europe. Averaging nearly 2,000 people a day, the daily average is almost en par with the total number of arrivals for the entire month of January two years ago. The journey is perilous— IOM has estimated some 244 men, women and children have died while crossing the Mediterranean deaths at sea for the same period.

In an effort to prevent these deaths at sea, the United Nation Security Council authorized the U.N. member states, either unilaterally or through regional organizations, to use military force against traffickers and human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea. In June, the EU launched the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean “to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers” in international waters. This allows military forces to stop and destroy boats used to carry refugees/migrants.

However, this new policy will face many challenges moving forward. Smuggling is a lucrative business, and is appealing to the numerous unemployed men in politically and economically torn coastal countries. Countries such as Libya, with two federal governments, lack an adequate number of jobs, and marginalize ethnic minorities such as the Amazigh or Berbers.

A positive development has been the rising cost for the smuggler to provide passage for refugees/migrants, especially as more refugees/migrants enter these coastal cities. It is increasingly difficult to obtain boats, as supply is shrinking and costs are rising. Past programs have provided loans to purchase fishing boats to stimulate the economy, however these loans have since ended. In addition, as more men enter the smuggling market, the demand for boats has caused the prices to rise as well.

A challenge that adds to the complexity of the smuggling problem is that as more smugglers enter the market, they decrease their prices for passage to become more competitive. Rather than reducing their profits, and thereby reducing the number of smugglers who enter the market, smugglers are filling the boats beyond capacity to offset this effect. The boats are not built to support the increased weight, and as a result many boats sink out at sea. Passage at sea is therefore more dangerous, but this is not met with a reduction in demand for passage.

The price for the passage varies by the nationality of the refugee/migrant. For example, Syrians who are fleeing conflict are charged more for the passage because they have the means to pay the higher fee, and have a strong motivation to ensure their passage to Europe. Moreover, most Syrians have additional savings that they can use to pay the higher fee smugglers charge for fewer passengers on the ship, meaning they are guaranteed a safer passage. People from Sub-Saharan Africa do not have the financial means to secure these guarantees.

Refugees/migrants also often face harsh conditions and exploitation by traffickers. They are frequently kept in cramped housing, without proper sanitation and food. Additionally, refugees/migrants are subject to abuse, and their often-illegal status prevents them from reporting these abuses. Smugglers charge additional fees for passage, or withhold pay and/or immigration papers to exploit these individuals. Ultimately the refugee/migrant is at the will of the smuggler, placing him or her in a precarious position.

The international community has responded to this crisis, and is actively working to mitigate the suffering of refugees/migrants, and to aid in their migration abroad. For example, organizations have worked to help with legal advice and job skills. The European Commission has pledged to double funding and personnel of the EU border patrol agency Frontex in an effort to control migration within Europe. The U.K. has taken an active role by additionally committing to sending the HMS Richmond to help reduce smuggling in the Mediterranean and to protect migrants at sea. The HMS Richmond is a warship that has been a part of search-and-rescue missions, and will additionally begin to target and seize ships in an effort to be able to prosecute the smugglers themselves. Due to the international laws of the sea, the HMS Richmond will be at least twelve miles off the territorial waters of key departure points.

Residents of coastal cities are also working to end human smuggling, especially after witnessing the horrors that are frequently associated with the process. When 200 bodies washed up on the shore in Zuwarah, Libya, residents filled the streets to demonstrate against smuggling. At the end of August last year, they organized a militia to pursue the smugglers in the city, silencing the seas north of the city, at least as of October. Pressure from the militia has made it too risky for smugglers to provide passage, as they may be prosecuted or their vessels seized. Those who are seeking passage in Zuwarah, however, can still find smugglers in other coastal cities, although they may need to pay larger sums of money.

Overall, it is incredibly difficult for local forces to enforce protections for refugees/migrants. Smugglers use fishing boats, which are hard to discern from those that are being used for their intended purpose. Additionally, these boats are often purchased right before the passage, which means they are not docked in sight of coast guards. The coast guards are also significantly under-resourced—manpower is small, technologies are inadequate, and coast guard boats are often smaller than the boats used by smugglers.

The challenges facing the international community and host countries are multi-dimensional and will require a complex solution. It is imperative that this solution come quickly, however, as thousands of lives are at stake.

One response to “Ending the Profitable Business of Refugee/Migrant Smuggling on the Mediterranean Sea

  1. Pingback: Kangaroos as a new method of warfare? | Humanity in War·

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