When people die crossing borders, governments are quick to point a finger at unscrupulous smugglers who pack asylum seekers and migrants into overcrowded, unseaworthy boats or who take them on long, treacherous journeys across jungles or deserts.
This script played out once again after as many as 650 people drowned following a shipwreck off the coast of Greece at the end of June. Following the tragedy, Ylva Johansson, the European Union’s migration and home affairs commissioner, said: “These smugglers that have asked these migrants to pay a lot of money to be sent to the EU, they’re actually being sent to death. That’s what they are doing.”
Putting the focus on smugglers allows governments to argue that smuggling needs to be stopped, providing a justification for treating migration as a security issue and increasing the fortification of borders in the name of protecting asylum seekers and migrants. But this approach is disingenuous and disconnected from what actually happens at borders. The truth is that criminalising migration ends up feeding the business model of smugglers, rather than fighting it.
We have been reporting and conducting research on migration for a decade, living and working along the routes that connect West Asia to Europe and spending time in Türkiye, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Balkans, among other places. We have interviewed hundreds of people on the move, smugglers, communities living close to border crossings, lawyers, aid workers, border police, and public officials.
Here are three big takeaways from our years of work that show how governments have gotten people smuggling wrong – and what could be done differently:
The harder it is to cross borders, the greater the need for smugglers
People do not decide to migrate because they are forced to by people smugglers. They make the difficult decision to leave their homes because of war and unbearable political and economic pressures.
A lack of opportunities to migrate legally and border policies that reduce freedom of movement – such as requiring visas that are difficult to obtain, building fences, and deploying security forces to keep people out – push people to turn to smugglers, creating a growing demand for their services.
“There is no way of making the crossing without smugglers,” Zagros*, a 32-year-old Iranian man, told us in January in Calais, France.
We first met Zagros in Bosnia and Herzegovina in August 2022. He walked with a limp because his leg had been fractured by Croatian police during one of his attempts to cross from Bosnia into Croatia, an EU member state.
Just a few years ago people crossing the Balkan route would walk from Greece to Western and Central Europe using GPS on their phones. But in the last few years, as EU member states have cracked down on irregular border crossings, illegal – often violent – pushbacks have become commonplace, and the market for smuggling services to circumvent harsh border controls has expanded.
Instead of countering smuggling, these moves have fuelled corruption and increased the vulnerability of people trying to cross them. The harder it is to cross a border, the more smugglers can charge for their services. Smugglers charge higher prices for “safer” travel options, such as crossing official border checkpoints where guards are paid bribes to let them pass.
On the Evros River border between Türkiye, Greece, and Bulgaria and on the Serbian-Hungarian border, smugglers boasted to us about the deals they cut with guards. “A ‘guaranteed journey’ is an organised route where the smugglers have a deal with the police,” Miha, a smuggler from a border town in Hungary, told us in July 2022.
People who can’t afford “guaranteed” journeys take longer, more dangerous land routes to circumvent border controls or end up crowded onto small, unseaworthy boats. When injuries and deaths occur, the smugglers are easy scapegoats. But the systematic use of violence by border authorities, or the refusal to rescue people at sea, are just as relevant causes of injuries and deaths.
Many smugglers are not hardened criminals
Governments often portray smugglers as part of highly professional criminal gangs. Some do work for organised, hierarchical networks that use violence as a tool to control border crossings and extract greater profits from vulnerable people. But most of the people we met – men, women, and children – who were involved in smuggling came from impoverished and marginalised communities near border regions where other means of earning an income were limited.
“The number of asylum seekers and migrants arrested and prosecuted in European countries as smugglers far outstrips the prevalence of this type of arrangement.”
Asylum seekers also occasionally work as people smugglers. “I am a smuggler. Without smugglers, no people would reach Europe. Not even me,” Mula, a man from Pakistan who was stranded along the Balkans route for years, told us.
Many, like Mula, work as smugglers to earn money to fund their own onward journey. People we spoke to explained that when they ran out of money, smugglers would offer them a deal: work as a driver, a guide, or as a recruiter to find customers in exchange for being smuggled free of charge.
The number of asylum seekers and migrants arrested and prosecuted in European countries as smugglers far outstrips the prevalence of this type of arrangement. People who played no role in smuggling routinely face charges ranging from facilitating irregular migration to manslaughter. Multiple life sentences have been handed down to some of those who have been convicted across Europe.
Asylum seekers and migrants are often aware of the dangers they face as well as the risk of facing criminal charges or being abused by smugglers. But most of them choose to approach smugglers to help them with their journeys because they have no other choice.
To actually break the business model, create opportunities for legal migration
In its budget cycle for 2021 to 2027, the EU plans to spend 34.9 billion euros on border security. These funds end up feeding short-sighted policies focused on deterring and criminalising migration. EU countries missed a major opportunity for reform by essentially doubling down on the current expensive and ineffective approach in a tentative bloc-wide migration agreement earlier this year.
In contrast, the extraordinary measures adopted to provide safety and integration support to Ukrainians escaping Russia’s invasion show that another way is possible.
To start, EU governments must offer legal and safe passage to people who wish to seek asylum but are currently stuck in camps due to the bottlenecks that exist at the bloc’s external borders. Sponsorship programmes, such as those created by organisations like Caritas and Sant’Egidio Community in Italy, France, and Belgium can be studied as models.
“Addressing irregular migration cannot be tackled separately from Europe’s need for labour.”
Secondly, the EU’s Dublin regulation – which requires people to apply for asylum in the first EU state they enter – needs to be urgently revisited for countries on the EU’s external borders not to shoulder a disproportionate responsibility for responding to migration.
Thirdly, addressing irregular migration cannot be tackled separately from Europe’s need for labour. The Center for Global Development estimates that Europe will have 95 million fewer workers in 2050 than it had in 2015. States that criminalise migration and people smuggling benefit from the labour of thousands of undocumented people who could only reach Europe by undertaking irregular journeys.
Instead of insisting on harsher, expensive border control policies, the EU needs to open up opportunities for people to apply legally for visas or work permits. But perhaps most importantly, EU countries must stop treating migration as a daunting, existential challenge and start viewing it as the opportunity it actually is.
*The names of some asylum seekers and migrants in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Edited by Eric Reidy.