Stopping migrants and smugglers: Success by what metric?
EU’s desire to manage irregular migration: break the business model of smugglers
In June 2016, the European Union (EU) launched the “New Migration Partnership Framework”, which places irregular migration at the top of the EU’s external relations priorities. The framework acknowledges that the unprecedented migratory flows into Europe are driven by geopolitical and economic factors that will continue, and may even intensify, in the years to come. Within the context of managing migration in a “sustainable way,” the EU framework states the dual goals of “saving lives at sea and breaking the business model of smugglers.”
Many of the component parts of the new EU framework, such as Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, the EU/Turkey deal to stop migrant flows from Turkey to Greece in exchange for monetary and political concessions and the Khartoum Process which outsources the burden of managing irregular migrant flows to source and transit countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia in exchange for aid and development assistance, have been the de facto policies of EU member states for years. As a result, a sober appraisal of the months-old EU Framework, especially in light of the sanguine press releases out of Brussels, is already overdue.
There is no doubt, for example, that Operation Sophia, with the help of an array of humanitarian organisations, has succeeded in saving tens of thousands of lives at sea. Yet there is no evidence that Operation Sophia or its predecessors have even hindered migrant smuggling activities, let alone broken them. In fact, migrant smuggling networks operating on the Libyan coast have incorporated the practicalities of these missions into their business models, placing migrants on cheaper, less seaworthy vessels that only need to reach international waters rather than Italy. Operation Sophia, therefore, is actually part of the business model of migrant smuggling, rather than a counter to it. It is right and noble for Europe to save people fleeing war, poverty and persecution at sea, but we cannot credibly expect these missions to counter migrant smuggling networks.
The €6 billion EU/Turkey deal has significantly reduced the number of arrivals on to the Greek islands, but it has not stopped them completely. Furthermore, the sustainability of the deal remains an open question, as the relationship between Brussels and Ankara is increasingly complicated by other political and security imperatives. Both sides accuse the other of not living up to their obligations, and the arrangement has been haphazardly implemented amid challenges to its legality.
Similarly, the continued flows into Greece, though significantly reduced, are not insubstantial, and they take place within the context of Balkan border closures and various other “dead ends” from Athens to Calais. These closures, which push the low-level opportunists and criminal entrepreneurs out of the market, are a boon to existing organised crime syndicates, which are uniquely placed to offer their advanced criminal expertise to bypass more stringent borders. They are also the actors who will seek to exploit migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors and women, living in extreme vulnerability at various bottlenecks along the migratory trail. Irregular flows through Europe have been reduced for now, but it has come at the expense of migrants and to the benefit of the very criminal actors the EU wants to disempower.
The effects of prioritising and delegating law enforcement and border security
Meanwhile, the EU and its partners are exporting variants of the EU/Turkey model to East Africa and the Horn through the Khartoum Process. Despite the fact that it is funded within the €1.8 billion EU Trust Fund to tackle the root causes of irregular migration, the Khartoum Process prioritises criminal justice, law enforcement instruments and border security responses over other considerations. Within this framework, aid and development assistance are blunt instruments to be “leveraged” in exchange for co-operation from non-democratic, authoritarian governments that lack legitimacy in the eyes of a large segment of their citizenry.
The obvious weakness in this approach is that source and transit countries will only act as Europe’s external border guards so long as it is in their interest. Buying co-operation from the likes of Sudan and Ethiopia might stem arrivals on European shores for now, but it is by no means a durable solution. These schemes, in fact, are the exact opposite of sustainable, and when they do reach their breaking points, organised crime networks will be reinvigorated by the renewed opportunities to profit from facilitating migrant flows as well as exploiting migrants along the way.
The European Union would also do well to remember that leverage works both ways. Prior to his fall, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi used threats of “turning Europe black” to extort tens of millions of Euros from Europe in exchange for keeping migrants out of the EU. Turkish President Recep Erdogan leveraged European panic to parlay a €3 billion proposal into a €6 billion deal in a matter of months. Kenya, Niger, Sudan and Egypt have all suggested that more money, among other concessions, will be needed if the EU expects them to stop migrant and refugee flows on Europe’s behalf.
Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming in all of the approaches outlined above, which emphasise criminal justice and border security, is that they are specifically tailored to the current crisis, while ignoring the fact that Europe is still fundamentally unprepared to deal with the next crisis, let alone new iterations of this one. If we accept that displacement and irregular migration flows are inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future, then the EU might be better served investing in its own capacity. Europe has proved unable and unwilling to provide care for arrivals, to process them efficiently, to provide protection to those who qualify and to return those who do not. These are core competencies that the European Union will need if it expects to manage any migrant or refugee influx, not just the current one. Europe, at present, does not have a migration crisis: it has a migration policy crisis.
Peter Tinti is an independent journalist and Senior Research Fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.