Home » Departments and Centres » Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies » Opinions » People Smugglers: Europe's Public Enemy Number One?

People Smugglers: Europe's Public Enemy Number One?

by Luigi Achilli

Research Associate to Migration Policy Centre


2 September 2015

Irregular immigration in Europe has created political heat across the world. Dramatic photos of migrants crammed into wretched boats circulate in the media. These images accompany journalistic accounts of poor and desperate individuals who are deceived by organised crime cartels. All this has persuaded political leaders and authorities to perceive the fight against clandestine migration as a war, a war where evil is represented by the smugglers. But who are the smugglers? Often referred to in the media as orchestrators of senseless human tragedies along migration corridors or amassers of untold riches made at the expense of migrants and their families,  people smugglers have gained widespread notoriety in most official, academic, and popular narratives of irregular migration as threats to human and national security.

Human smugglers are certainly responsible for a great deal of the tragedy that we are currently witnessing in the Mediterranean. However, popular representations of the smuggler tend to oversimplify both the clandestine traveller and the smuggler: a process of abstraction that overlooks the ambiguities and nuances of the phenomenon of illegal immigration. This is neither to underestimate the plight of the former nor the cruelty of the latter: the suffering and hardships that labour migrants and asylum seekers endure to arrive in Europe cannot be stressed enough. It is precisely for this reason, however, that we are in urgent need of a more nuanced understanding of smuggling and the actors involved. Empirical evidence shows that human smuggling across the Eastern Mediterranean sea is the sum of highly heterogeneous organisations operating on a small scale and in a short time-frame; that these groups are characterised by a lack of solid hierarchies and the existence of interchangeable figures; that they provide a service that is in great demand without necessarily exploiting their clients; and that the smuggler and the customer may, at times, be the same person. As such, an effective eradication of these organisations without addressing the causes of clandestine migration may thus prove difficult as smuggling networks are deeply enmeshed within migratory flows.

If the intended goal is the suppression of smuggling networks, security measures can be effective only if accompanied by other solutions. A truly effective answer to human smuggling would require the EU and its member states to concentrate on reducing “demand” more than curbing “supply”. Smugglers often constitute the only available option for those migrants who flee a situation of immediate danger and distress. Accordingly, the first decisive step towards a more durable radical solution for the current crisis demands the opening of new channels of legal entry and the reinforcement of existing ones for refugees and asylum seekers, presumably the majority of people smuggled by sea. This should translate into: granting humanitarian visas; the creation of humanitarian corridors between transit countries and Europe; the expansion of European countries’ resettlement programmes; and the development of alternative legal routes for refugees – such as family reunification, university fellowships and scholarships, training programmes, private sponsorships, and labour mobility. The sealing and fortification of EU borderlands will not only mean the neglect of asylum seekers, but it will also favour the consolidation of smuggling networks.



Page last updated on 18 August 2017