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To be effective, measures to curb migrant smuggling must be embedded in a broader strategy

9 November 2015

Several questions arise as unprecedent numbers of refugees flee to Europe with the assistance of migrant smugglers. What should be done to stop human smuggling? Or are migrant smugglers a "necessary evil" after all?

By Veronika Bilger and Martin Hofmann

The unparalleled numbers of refugees reaching Europe in an irregular way and with the assistance of migrant smugglers give rise to a set of questions.

Does it make sense to invest in the fight against migrant smugglers when – at least partly – states themselves cannot uphold their obligations and are forced to admit large contingents of refugees as well as irregular migrants outside of existing legal regimes or transport them through their territory towards other destinations? Are migrant smugglers a “necessary evil” to provide refugees with access to protection? Would a more successful fight against smugglers not also imply that refugees were deprived of the possibility to reach safe countries and had to remain in situations threatening their lives and security? Finally, are there ways to tackle migrant smuggling more successfully or have states already lost the battle?

To be clear from the outset, a sole focus on the fight against human smuggling will neither be successful nor address the refugee situation in the crisis-stricken  regions of origin
. The majority of people fleeing to Europe do so because they are forced to, and they would continue to try to reach safe countries also without the assistance of professional organisers.

Nevertheless, there are still strong arguments to put emphasis on measures tackling the phenomenon of migrant smuggling as long as it is firmly embedded in a broader strategy that addresses the refugee crisis on the global scale and in the European neighbourhood:


  • The first argument is simply a legal one. Migrant smuggling is a criminal offence and it is the task of law enforcement to prosecute offenders. Migrant smuggling may not only involve high risks for those using such services but it also contravenes a state’s capacity to steer and regulate migration.
  • Second, migrant smuggling networks not only facilitate irregular migration but also channel related flows to certain countries of transit and destination. Especially in a context where large numbers of people are on the move, the channelling effects run contrary to any state attempts to manage the situation orderly or to find solutions based on cooperation between them. The current situation in the Western Balkans illustrates this.
  • Third, the current migrant smuggling environment is characterised by a mix of professional and semi-professional structures on the one side and increasing numbers of amateurs on the other, who are tempted to get involved by the exceptional demand, to make quick financial gains and whose lack of know-how endangers the lives of their clients. Contrary to professional actors, they might be deterred more easily by enhanced law enforcement. If this is not the case, established structures may stabilise and even expand when the current situation has hopefully eased.
  • Fourth and related to the argument above, once the current demand has declined, the structures developed can be used to tap into new markets. Right now this might not be necessary but it is known that migrant smugglers actively promote their services to reach out to new clients. Those might also comprise individuals who get lured into an irregular movement by false promises and “good” offers of established migrant smuggling networks.
  • Fifth, though migrant smugglers might not engage in other types of crime from the outset, the large revenues made, the know-how gathered and the networks and contacts built might tempt some of them to invest in other types of illegal businesses as well. Migrant smuggling might not be a typical activity of organised crime but it can be an additional source of income to foster such structures.
  • Finally, migrant smuggling is essentially a business, structured around profit, reputation and minimisation of risk. Like all businesses that are successful, it meets a particular demand. A mere sanctioning of the supply side – the providers – will not lower the demand of their clients. Instead, migrant smuggling will become even more expensive, even riskier for migrants and further limit the options for those in need of protection. Migrants who use services of smugglers waste financial and human resources which could otherwise be invested more productively.

In view of the above arguments, the fight against migrant smuggling must be viewed as only one element of any promising policy response to the current refugee situation in Europe and beyond. It will be successful only when it is part of a broader set of measures including more promising attempts for conflict resolution in regions of origin; improvement of reception conditions in the countries hosting large numbers of refugees such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; programmes to promote temporary economic integration in countries neighbouring conflict zones; enhanced channels for safe entry to Europe and other world regions; and functioning policies on resettlement to and relocation within Europe.

Routes change, smugglers adapt

State measures addressing migrant smuggling and irregular migration normally have an immediate impact. However, against the background of lacking international coordination as well as cooperation between countries of destination, transit and origin, they are often implemented in an isolated fashion.

This, in turn, results in a shifting of migrant smuggling and irregular migration movements to other countries and routes. Today, migrant smuggling unfolds in form of an obstacle race for organisers and clients ranging from place of departure to destination. The challenge is to overcome the physical, legal and procedural obstacles and to make use of existing physical, legal and procedural opportunities at the same time. Thus, the main obstacles are state borders, which constitute the most intensely secured and controlled obstacles. States tend to primarily focus on preventing smugglers and smuggled migrants from entry to their territory. This implies the risk of catching the numerous “small fish”, those who just assist in the immediate border crossing and can easily be replaced by others.  

In order to curb migrant smuggling it will be necessary to base responses on a variety of interventions at different levels and stages of the process. This needs to be done with a view to reducing the incentives for profiting from the vulnerability of migrants and with a reinforced emphasis on informing about legal migration opportunities and establishing safer passage options for those who see no alternative to migration.

There is a need for real cooperation between all countries on dealing with the current refugee crisis going beyond domestic interests, otherwise the most burdened countries will continue to be the weakest links in the chain. Such cooperation has to be based on truly comprehensive measures which are based on real solidarity with those on the move and the countries that host the largest numbers of refugees inside and outside Europe, are the main transit countries or the main entry points to the EU.



This study was carried out by ICMPD and partners for the European Commission: 

A Study on Smuggling of Migrants: Characteristics, Responses and Cooperation with Third Countries

Download full study en 

Download executive summary en fr    

Veronika Bilger is Programme Manager Research and Martin Hofmann is Programme Manager of ICMPD's Competence Centre for Legal Migration and Integration

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ICMPD.

Photo: Highways Agency on Flickr