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Migrant Smuggling: What is the EU doing?

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

More than one million migrants were smuggled into Europe in 2015.

During their journey to Europe, smuggled migrants are often exposed to both violence and life-threatening risks. Scores of migrants perish in deserts, suffocate in containers or drown at sea. The Mediterranean crossing is the deadliest migrant route worldwide. An estimated 2,275 migrants died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 (UNHCR).

Migrant smuggling is associated with serious human rights violations and deaths.The smuggling of migrant is high on the Eu agenda. It is one of the crime priorities in the EU policy cycle.

The EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (2015-2020)

In May 2015, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling.

The aim of the Action Plan is to set out concrete actions to counter and prevent migrant smuggling, while ensuring the protection of the human rights of migrants.

This EU Action Plan details the specific actions necessary to implement the European Agenda on Migration and the European Agenda on Security.

What are the European Agenda on Migration and the EU Agenda on Security?

Priority: prevention of migrant smuggling, with the goal of transforming

The European Agenda on Migration was adopted in May 2015 by the European Commission. This agenda identified “the fight against migrant smuggling as priority to prevent the exploitation of migrants by criminal networks and reduce incentives to irregular migration”. The goal of this agenda is to transform migrant smuggling networks from 'low risk, high return' operations into 'high risk, low return' ones.

As for the European Agenda on Security, it was also adopted by the Commission in April 2015. This agenda “singled out cooperation against the smuggling of migrants inside the EU and with third countries as a priority in the fight against organized crime networks”.

The main objectives of the EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling

To tackle migrant smuggling, the EU Action Plan focuses on four objectives:

- Enhanced police and judicial response

- Improved gathering and sharing of information

- Enhanced prevention of smuggling and assistance to vulnerable migrants

- Stronger cooperation with third countries

Specific actions

- Enhanced police and judicial response

Aim: “enhance the capacities of Member States to investigate and prosecute migrant smuggling networks and the ability of EU Agencies to provide support” (European Commission)

Specific actions:

- Establishment of a list of suspicious vessels and monitoring of these vessels.

- Support to member States for towing to shore boats intended to be used by smugglers or disposing of them at sea

- Launching cooperation with financial institutions to set up financial investigations

- Establishment of a single point of contact on migrant smuggling in each Member State

- Creation of a Eurojust thematic group on migrant smuggling

Source: European Commission

- Improved gathering and sharing of information

Aim: “Gather and share information on modus operandi, routes, economic models of smuggling networks, on links with trafficking in human beings and other crimes, and on financial transfers, is crucial for targeting it effectively”

Specific actions:

- Deployment of European migration liaison officers in key EU Delegations

- Evaluation, in 2016, and possible revision of EU legislation on Immigration Liaison Officers

- Strengthening of JOT (Joint Operational Team) MARE as EU information hub on migrant smuggling

- Development of Africa Frontex Intelligence Community

- Enhanced monitoring of pre-frontier area with full use of EUROSUR (European Border Surveillance System)

- Including migrant smuggling data within the regular Eurostat collection of crime statistics

- Enhanced prevention of smuggling and assistance to vulnerable migrants

Aim: “Raise awareness of the risks of smuggling and of irregular migration”

Specific actions:

- Information and prevention campaigns in third countries on risks of smuggling

- Development of handbook on prevention on migrant smuggling

- Development of guidelines for border authorities and consular services

- Evaluation of the EU legal framework on SIS (Schengen Information System) to explore ways to enhance effectiveness of return and reduce irregular migration

- Proposals to open negotiations on readmission with main countries of irregular migrants

- Define targets as regards the number of inspections to be carried out every year in the economic sectors most exposed to illegal employment

- Stronger cooperation with third countries:

Aim: “address the root causes of irregular migration, in cooperation with countries of origin and transit”.

Specific actions:

- Launching or enhancing bilateral and regional cooperation frameworks

- Funding of projects to support third countries set up strategies on migrant smuggling, set up police and judicial responses, develop integrated border management

- Setting up of EU cooperation platforms on migrant smuggling in relevant third countries and regions

- Optimising the use of EU funding through joint and coordinated planning.

The European Union also developed other initiatives that have to been seen in complementarity with the Action Plan. For example, in 2016, Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, launched the European Migrant Smuggling Centre which aims to support EU Member States pro-actively in dismantling criminal networks involved in organized migrant smuggling.

Furthermore, other European operations are developed with the aim of combating the smuggling of migrants. This is the case of EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia which is a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation in the Central Mediterranean.

The purpose of this operation is to disrupt the business model of smugglers and contribute to EU efforts for the return of stability and security in Libya and the Central Mediterranean region. This operation is also based on the training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy and the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

Referring to the EU presence at sea, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), helps to patrol the EU's external border and collects data and intelligence regarding smuggling routes and the practices of the criminal networks involved.

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