How Europe’s policies fuel the smuggling trade they are trying to stop

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The list of refugees who have died trying to enter Europe was first published in 1993 with details of 62 people who lost their lives, mostly in central Europe.

Today the counter is at 34,361, and shows that the deaths go on and on – and on.

After the fall of the iron curtain (with its own border deaths) in 1989, Europe feared millions of migrants. In response to this fear, it externalised border control. First, European countries harmonised their visa policies, resulting in joint visa requirements for nationals of the global south. Second, it ensured that airlines enforce these visa requirements before embarkation, by introducing stiff fines. Third, taking its cue from the defence industry, Europe introduced new technologies, ranging from databases to biometric identity documents. Now only three of every 10,000 passengers arriving at European airports from outside the EU are refused entry. Enforcement is almost complete.

What is the List?

What is the List?

Since 1993, activists at the network United for Intercultural Action have made a record of every reported instance in which someone has died trying to migrate into Europe. In all, 61 deaths were recorded in 1993; 3,915 were recorded in 2017.

What sources did they use?

The small team, based in the Netherlands, drew on reports in the local, national and international press, as well as NGO records. Though the vast majority of people died during en route for Europe – most of them at sea – the List also points out that hundreds died in custody, and hundreds more took their own lives. Most deaths recorded on the List are anonymous.

How many deaths have been recorded?

As of 5 May 2018, the figure stood at 34,361. But activists acknowledge that the List is neither definitive nor comprehensive. The real number is likely to be far higher, as many thousands of people will have died without trace during sea and land journeys over the years.

Why is the Guardian involved?

With work on the Windrush scandal and the award-winning New Arrivals series, the Guardian has demonstrated its commitment to exposing the social injustice faced by refugees and migrants. On Wednesday June 20, the Guardian becomes the first English-language daily to publish the List in full. It is also available as a PDF download on our website. This edition of The List is produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London and Liverpool Biennial.

Photograph: Santi Palacios/AP
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As a result, unauthorised migration shifted from regular means of transport (planes, ferries) to smuggler boats and trucks. Initially, existing smuggling networks were used. Albanian cigarette smugglers on the Adriatic and Nigerian traders in the Sahel were willing to take migrants, too. Because migrant smuggling was integrated in a broader range of activities, prices and quality were reasonable. In the late 1990s, European governments initiated policies of cracking down on migrant smuggling, ranging from illegal pushbacks to incarcerating smugglers and destroying boats.

As a consequence of the crackdown, human smuggling has become a separate market. The level of organisation, while still relatively low, has gone up because the people making the profit do not want to be on the boat any more, as they would risk incarceration. Because the boats are likely to be destroyed upon arrival, their quality has gone down.

Migrants rescued from the Mediterranean in January 2018. The quality of boats used to ship refugees to Europe has deteriorated because the people smugglers no longer travel with their human cargo and they know the boats will be destroyed on arrival anyway.

Migrants rescued from the Mediterranean in January 2018. The quality of boats used to ship refugees to Europe has deteriorated because the people smugglers no longer travel with their human cargo and they know the boats will be destroyed on arrival anyway.

Photograph: DPA / Barcroft Images

The result has been higher prices, hence higher profit margins. In accordance with market logic, this attracts more service providers (AKA smugglers). The result of European policies has been the opposite of what was intended: a greater supply of smuggling services, higher prices (hence increasing exposure of migrants to labour exploitation), and higher risks.

On the demand side, European countries talk about legal channels of migration but do not practise what they preach. The starkest example of this is the Syrian refugee crisis. Half of Syria’s 18 million people have been displaced, of whom 5.6 million have found refuge in neighbouring countries, in particular Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Europe has done little, resettling minimal numbers, although Germany has taken in more than half a million.

Last year, in a controversial Belgian case, the EU court of justice was asked whether European countries should issue humanitarian visas to enable refugees to reach Europe without resorting to smugglers. Member states and the European commission strongly objected. Faced with a potentially explosive choice, the court of justice decided it had no competence to rule on the issue. The consequence is that this remains a responsibility for individual member states.

Since the infamous 3 October 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, European states have succeeded in injecting humanitarianism into this policy cycle. Invoking the high number of border deaths, they have replaced illegal pushbacks with pullbacks: Libyan authorities trained, equipped, and coordinated by European states now bring back migrant boats to Libyan shores.

Rows of coffins fill an airport hangar in the Italian island of Lampedusa after a migrant boat sank in October 2013.

Rows of coffins fill an airport hangar in the Italian island of Lampedusa after a migrant boat sank in October 2013. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/EPA

Exposure to torture in Libyan detention camps is “solved” by having the International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental organisation entirely funded by states, implement what are called humanitarian returns to other countries. George Orwell lovers will appreciate that these returns are considered voluntary, because the alternative would be torture.

Just last week, the Italian government resorted to yet another classic form of deterrence. In the tradition of the St Louis in 1939 and the Tampa affair in 2001, Italy and Malta refused disembarkation of the more than 600 people rescued by the NGO ship Aquarius.

The response to unauthorised migration, and the deaths that come with it, consists of an intensification of the very measures that spurred unauthorised migration. Europe is caught in a policy cycle that ensures demand for smuggling services, as well as making it profitable to supply smuggling at high volume and low quality. The data compiled by Dutch NGO United for Intercultural Action show there are peaks in the number of deaths (which European governments blame on those vicious smugglers) as well as drops (which they claim as policy successes). But the trend is up, and the policy cycle makes it unrealistic to expect that this will change.

Unless Europe begins breaking the cycle.

There are three conditions for such a rupture:

  1. The large majority of border deaths are young African men, and they disappear in the Mediterranean or wash up on African shores. While they continue to die largely hidden from view, their deaths are something Europe can live with. If this doesn’t change, Europe will not break the cycle.
  2. Through all the familiar processes (the revolving door, EU funded research and development programmes, shoulder-rubbing at technology fairs) policymakers and the security industry intimately interact while excluding civil society and other stakeholders. The resulting grip of the defence industry on policymaking has to end.
  3. Once black lives matter, policymakers can begin to discuss alternative policies which have been tabled by civil society for years. This requires that policymakers stop denying the empirical realities which they claim they want to change.

Thomas Spijkerboer is a professor of migration law, at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

  • The List is being given away as part of a supplement with the 20 June print edition of the Guardian.

The List is being given away as part of a supplement with the 20 June print edition of the Guardian.