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Criminalizing mobility, securitizing borders, and preventing access to territory will not end dangerous journeys

The tragic and preventable drownings in the French Channel on Wednesday November 24, and the similarly avoidable humanitarian crisis at the EU’s border with Belarus are being used politically to promote and advance an increasingly securitized approach to border management. But criminalising mobility, securitizing borders, and preventing access to territory will not result in safer mobility.

Rather than doubling up efforts to provide safe pathways, ensure access to seek asylum and meet humanitarian needs, the reaction by the EU Commission have been to harden borders, introducing carrier sanctions to an unprecedented level, and indications of attempts to legalise non-entry policies through derogations from EU and international law.

 The response by the EU Commission is concerning, although predictable and follows the line and approach also outlined in the recent new EU action plan against migrant smuggling. The action plan consolidated and reaffirmed an approach that criminalizes mobility and securitizes borders. It is an approach that will fail to provide safer mobility, but rather worsen vulnerabilities of those on the move and increase the demand for smuggling services.

Based on the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the Mixed Migration Centre’s (MMC) role in documenting and working to mitigate the consequences of the increasing securitization of borders and criminalization of mobility, here are what we see as the major flaws and protection consequences of the approach represented in the renewed action plan against migrant smuggling as well as in the EU’s response to the situation at its external borders.

A blind eye to the harmful effects of anti-smuggling measures and lack of accountability

Protection and rights of refugees and migrants must be put at the centre of anti-smuggling measures. Neglecting to do so leads to violations of the right to freedom of movement and right to seek and enjoy asylum, unintentionally fuel the demand for smuggling, and prompt smugglers to use more precarious routes, increasing the risks for people on the move.

The renewed action plan underpins the key aims of the EU pact on migration and asylum and its efforts towards curbing irregular migration in partnerships with third countries. Though the plan sets out to provide safer mobility, the strong narrative of “protecting borders” also present in the plan stimulate practices such as those we are witnessing at the EU’s external borders and beyond.

Efforts towards safer mobility must also include addressing the environment of impunity in which human smuggling occurs, ensuring that all actors involved in human rights violations in the context of human smuggling are held to account.

Triggered by the situation at the borders with Belarus, the plan encourages actions to counter so-called “state-sponsored movements” towards the EU’s. But it is quiet on the broader involvement and collusion of state officials in facilitating smuggling along key migratory routes. This, despite state officials being well-represented as frequent perpetrators of human rights violations.

A distorted narrative leading to flawed responses  

Anti-smuggling measures must rely on a nuanced understanding of the different profiles of people engaged in facilitating irregular movements. While research points to a much more complex reality, the new action plan maintains a narrow perception of smuggling networks, predominantly as organised criminal networks. It neglects to distinguish between the diversity of actors engaged in enabling irregular movements.

The plan further continues to conflate human smuggling and trafficking. Two different phenomena with different protection implications that require distinct responses. Conflating the two leads to a distorted response overly focused on the criminal exploitation element – and overlooks protection needs and agency of refugees and migrants seeking safety using facilitators.  

An absence of safe and regular pathways

Commitments to enhance safe, regular, and accessible pathways must be translated into action. The action plan points to the need for safe and regular pathways. It does not however expand on how to promote or create such pathways.

Without safe alternatives the use of smugglers will for many be the only possibility to reach safety. The current situation in Afghanistan puts the consequences of efforts to contain movements through anti-smuggling measures under a magnifying glass. Presented as attempts to reduce risk of hazardous journeys, a crack-down on human smuggling in the neighbouring countries is bound to increase fees, and push people onto more dangerous routes. Those attempting the journey can expect to be faced with sky-rocketing smuggling fees, dangerous journeys, and militarized borders. If reaching the EU’s borders, illegal and violent pushbacks are old and well-documented news. And refugees trapped out of sight in border zones between Belarus-Poland/Lithuania is the latest cruel addition to a painful catalogue of extreme measures to keep people out.

Safe, regular, and accessible pathways for protection and labour migration must be enhanced and diversified to decrease dependency on smugglers.

A half-hearted use of evidence for policy responses

The action plan clearly recognizes the value of research and data collection, which is positive. It appears however primarily focused on intelligence gathering in support of criminal investigations, rather than knowledge production for improved policy responses. Listening to actors in direct contact with people on the move and drawing on the wealth of evidence-based recommendations are key to ensure well-informed policies and responses that are protection-sensitive.

While the approach of the renewed action plan may be flawed, its translation into the announced Anti-smuggling Operational Partnerships with third countries can still insist on a solid evidence base to ensure effective and protection-sensitive responses. Criminalizing mobility, securitizing borders, and preventing access to territory will not end dangerous journeys.

Read DRC’s and MMC’s full recommendations for a protection-sensitive approach in the position paper: Countering human smuggling: No silver bullet for safer mobility here

Find more resources on human smuggling on MMC’s website here