Saturday 5 October 2013

Smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration

The disaster of the sinking of a boat on 3 October 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa, which cost the life to hundreds of refugees and migrants, has already led to calls for a 'smuggling crackdown' among governments and international organisations. Over the past decade, this has been the usual reaction when such tragedies happen on the southern coasts of Europe.

However, such reasoning is turning the causality of things upside down. It is the border controls that have forced migrants to take more dangerous routes and that have made them more and more dependent on smugglers to cross borders. Smuggling is a reaction to border controls rather than a cause of migration in itself. Ironically, further toughening of border controls will therefore force migrants and refugees to take more risks and only increase their reliance on smugglers.

The phenomenon of irregular boat migration across the Mediterranean is anything but new. It has existed ever since Spain and Italy introduced visa requirements for Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and other African nationals around 1991. This forced many people, who previously could migrate and circulate to Europe freely, to cross borders irregularly. Over the past decades, an increasing number of sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees have joined North Africans in their efforts to cross the Mediterranean (see here for a brief historical overview).

While sustained demand for cheap labour in agriculture, services and other informal sectors has been the main driver of this migration, a significant, but substantial minority is fleeing conflict in their origin countries. As long as no more legal channels for immigration are created and as long as refugees are denied access to asylum procedures, it is likely that a substantial proportion of this migration will remain irregular.

It seems practically impossible to seal off the long Mediterranean coastlines. To a large extent, border controls have been self-defeating. Increasing controls at the Strait of Gibraltar in the 1990s have not stopped migration but led to an eastward and southward diversification of African overland migration routes and maritime crossing points over the 2000s.

This has led to an unintended increase in the area that EU countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration. This area now included the entire North African coast and various crossing points on the West African coast towards the Canary Islands (see The Myth of Invasion report I wrote in 2007 and the map above, which should be updated to include maritime crossings from the Egyptian coast and increasing migration through Israel and Turkey).

As a consequence of the increasing length and dangerous nature of journeys, migrants have become more dependent on smugglers. Over two decades of costly, mounting investment into border controls and rapidly increased funding for Frontex (EU's border agency) have not stopped migration, but increased the vulnerability of migrants, their reliance on smuggling and caused the deaths of an estimated number of at least 17,000 people over the past two decades. It is particularly worrying that the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' has blocked access to asylum for people fleeing conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There is a strong parallel between the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' in the Mediterranean and the situation on the US-Mexican border. Research (see for instance here and here) has shown that the toughening of border controls and the erection of walls between the US and Mexico has not stopped migration, but has led to a deflection of migration flows towards longer, more dangerous routes across the desert, an increasing reliance on smugglers (coyotes), a rising death toll, and a reduction of circularity.

As I argued earlier, the actual magnitude of cross-Mediterranean migration (several tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands per year) is more limited than is often believed. Most irregular migrants living in Europe enter legally and then overstay their visas. Yet ‘harsh’ political discourse on immigration accompanying such policies is likely to reinforce the same xenophobia and the concomitant apocalyptic representations of a ‘massive’ influx of migrants to which they seem a political–electoral response. Policy making on this issue is therefore caught in a vicious circle of 'more restrictions - more illegality - more restrictions'.

Policies to ‘combat illegal migration’ are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to 'fight'. It is very disturbing to see how governments casually deploy belligerent terms such as 'combating' and 'fighting' to describe their attempts to stop migrants and refugees from reaching European territory. However, the real scandal is that governments and migration agencies such as Frontex shamelessly abuse tragedies such as the Lampedusa disaster to spend more money on 'combating illegal migration', which is only going to increase reliance on smuggling, block access of refugees to protection, and cause even more deaths at the border.


  1. I am close observer of the tragedy (based in Italy) and I totally agree on what you claim. It is our laws that define migrants as “irregulars”, not their intrinsic characteristic. We hope - although I am not so sure this government will do anything - that Italy shall take this occasion to revise immigration law, which is particularly shameful and ineffective neither in respecting people in movement rights, nor for “governing” migration. Considering Italy’s responsibility as the starting point, adding to this as you say the use our political class has been making regarding the fake “invasion” we assist at, however Europe too has to stop being so hypocrite: our societies, families and industries need and demand for migrants; our societies claim to be respectful of people’s rights, more so for those escaping wars and disasters to whom all EU countries should accord the asylum status. When shall we find a balance between these dynamics, and stop spending money beyond our possibilities for financing the FRONTEX Agency?

  2. I took the route from Gao to Tamanrasset across the Sahara, to Djanet and Ghat, then to Sebha, and then to Benghazi and Tripoli where I actually flew by plane out to Berlin. Didn't have to deal with people smugglers that lead you to your death in the Med. Actually one of the few persons around who entered Europe legally after crossing the desert from South to North.

  3. I agree! Frontex is a shame and illegal instrument to 'fight' against migration. All European countries signed the Refugee Convention to protect refugees but they do anything to keep refugees away from their borders. This leads to the death of those people we promised to protect. Most people on the boat were refugees from unsafe Somalia and Eritrea. If they would have reached our borders, there is a big chance we would have granted them asylum.

  4. Yes, blaming it all the time on smugglers is obviously exaggerated if not globally unfair. We should not forget that these "boat people" departed from Libya (Misrata) and thousands of immigrants have lost their jobs there after the so called revolution supposedly aimed to protect the Libyans (but not the others?). Part of these desperate people is seeking to reach Europe by any mean. Who really cares about them before and after the disaster in Libya?
    On another side, there is still a great work to do in terms of information. I am not sure that all those who take the boats know well that thousands drowned in the Mediterranean sea before. Isn't it their right to know not only this but also what expects them in Europe if they manage to reach it? I bring here a classical migration (pull) factor which is always current: the image transmitted by media and successful migrants are still misleading. If potential migrants are adequately informed, part of them would have changed their mind. Resources invested in border control would have been more efficient if invested in informing these poor guys.

  5. There's so much I'd like to say...but as reading what is hardly ever admitted is rather overwhelming, I'll stick to a heartfelt thank you for writing this.

  6. Of course the political discourse against "irregular" immigration is a technique to fire the war among poors and make us forget who is responsible for so many problems in our society: the "others" are always easy to blame, especially if they have no voice to defend their position (no money, no influence on media...).
    Now the Italian government wants to legislate to "improve conditions of prisions" - they say -, for they are full of do they pretend to do it? With the pardon for certain kinds of crimes, obviously including all those for which Berlusconi is accused of; meanwhile, they go on arresting immigrants lacking of residency permit.
    If they really want to close borders and solve other problems, why don't they prevent European enterpreuners to install in African countries and exploit cheap labour??? It could be very useful also to create jobs in Europe itself, at somehow better labour conditions...But we, white Europeans, are so used to our privileges, that we cynically pretend to decide about other's rights of movement and migration, and not even put into question our right to do it.
    Shame on our governments and on those who still support them!


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