Tackling people smuggling, Europe's most complex crime

The crisis has been going on for years and rates are expected to rise as the pandemic eases

Last week, the UN celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a document that asserts the rights of people who, fleeing their homes in desperation, have very few advocates. Its mission is more important than ever, as refugees continue to struggle for their rights across the world, even in some of its wealthiest regions.

In Europe, years after its migrant crisis began, authorities across the continent are still struggling to come up with solutions.

In Britain, Home Secretary Priti Patel is proposing new laws to clampdown on those who enter the country illegally. The bill includes plans to process asylum claims abroad and harsh punishments against migrants who cross the English Channel illegally, including prison terms of up to four years. For people smugglers themselves, life imprisonment is on the cards.

The bill's intentions are severe and controversial, but perhaps its most basic shortcoming is whether it is enforceable. Opposition politicians, who object to it morally, have also said that practically it is "riddled with holes and fatally flawed".

A crackdown, however, is thought by the government to be an easy political victory in a country where a large share of voters are considered to be against rising levels of immigration. Prime Minister Boris Johnson should not assume this is the case. The RNLI, a lifeboat charity that is currently protecting those making the journey, has seen an increase in public donations. Ms Patel's bill could even criminalise their work.

In Greece, police have said they are preparing criminal charges against 10 people, who they allege to have helped migrants enter the country illegally. All 10 are foreign nationals, indicative of a common difficulty for law enforcement agencies who are up against global criminal networks.

The National has reported recently on an operation led by Romanian police that broke up a migrant-smuggling gang operating in the Balkans. The group included members from Egypt, Iraq, Romania and Syria. Those using their services paid between €4,000 and €10,000 ($4,747 to $11,870) depending on the route and destination they chose.

Such raids are complex, and prosecutions hard to secure. Smugglers need to be stopped, but gangs in Europe are the tailend of a crisis that cannot be solved only in courts. Regional instability that fuelled the crisis in 2015 is ongoing. And protecting those caught up in the process is not straightforward. Refugees fleeing persecution have a right, by international law, to seek protection in other countries. Migrants are not in the same bracket, but taking extreme measures to seek a better life is often the product of impossibly difficult conditions at home.

Criminal intent is not fuelling the crisis, but a fundamentally human one to live in peace and work for a better future. People seeking safety should not be political footballs in European parliaments, but the centre around which new, ethical policies are drawn up.

A criminal approach is absolutely right for those who have enriched themselves through human trafficking. But a heavy-handed legal solution would not be right for the victims of such criminals, who are lured into arrangements on the basis of false promises or desperation. They do not deserve punishment from the places they thought would shelter them at the end of long and dangerous journeys.

Published: August 2nd 2021, 5:05 AM