Europe seeking 'silver bullet' to solve illegal migrant crisis

Governments under pressure to tackle people smugglers but experts believe quick fix isn't possible

Migrants in France one of many European countries trying to tackle the issue of illegal migration. Getty Images
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Even when he’s asleep, Ali still can't escape the memories of the four-year journey that took him from fleeing military service in Eritrea to a camp in the UK.

“Sometimes I find myself dreaming about when I was in France and in the boat,” he told The National.

“I came across to England on a boat with about 50 people. There was water in the boat and then the motor stopped. It was very dangerous and people were scared.”

Faced with the possibility of indefinite military service for a regime he describes as a “dictatorship”, he escaped over the border to Djibouti, then made his way to Libya via Ethiopia and Sudan.

Just as his journey to Britain from Eritrea took him across seven nations, the activities of people smugglers know no borders.

Ali's story is one of the millions in recent years and sums up the complexity of the problem facing Europe, as politicians try to stem the numbers arriving illegally and deal with the rising tide of discontent among electorates, ripe for picking by populist politicians such as Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigration / anti-Islamic platform propelled his party to victory in recent Dutch general election.

The grand plans

The EU and the UK have in recent days upped their efforts to tackle the problem, with a series of plans unveiled.

Shipping asylum seekers to Rwanda or Albania to have their claims processed, tackling criminal people-smuggling gangs, information campaigns to deter migrants and creating safe and legal routes have been put forward as potential solutions across the continent.

In a bid to be on the front foot, the EU last week unveiled a Global Alliance to Counter Migrant Smuggling.

The British government is fighting to keep alive plans to send migrants to Rwanda in a bid to fulfil Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's pledge to "stop the boats". After the Supreme Court ruled the proposal unlawful, he has pinned his hopes on a formal treaty with the African nation, enshrined in law to head off any challenges in the courts. Home Secretary James Cleverly is expected to travel to Rwanda as early as this week in an attempt to drive it home.

Doubts are beginning to appear among MPs in Mr Sunak's own Conservative Party, including Alicia Kearns, the chairwoman of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, amid reported concerns among diplomats that Rwanda itself is getting cold feet over the plan.

“We need to move away from the fixation with Rwanda as a silver bullet to tackling illegal migration," she told The National.

"The findings of the Supreme Court are not easily overcome. I did not vote for the Rwanda plan.”

Ali, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is currently living with other asylum seekers at RAF Wethersfield, a former military base in the countryside in Essex, about two hours’ drive from London.

Since the government announced up to 1,700 asylum seekers would be housed there earlier this year, nearby residents have been campaigning to have it closed.

The camp lies in the constituency of Conservative MP Mr Cleverly, who in an ironic twist was recently appointed Home Secretary, the government minister with responsibility for managing migration.

It seems he’s now heard the local people’s arguments about a lack of infrastructure to support such a large number of asylum seekers and has reportedly promised to close the camp at the earliest possible opportunity.

But while residents will be pleased their voice has been heard, the problem of how to deal with the constant flow of asylum seekers across Europe remains.

Smugglers preying on desperate migrants

The European Commission says its new Global Alliance is aimed at tackling gangs that make exorbitant amounts of money transporting migrants into Europe on deathtrap boats.

Many like Ali make their way across the continent to the shores of France, where they will pay another gang of people smugglers to take them on a boat to the UK. In recent days another two died, shortly after the second anniversary of the death of 27 people after a boat sank in the English Channel.

Europe’s plans involve a broad range of measures that acknowledge “migration is a complex issue”, taking in heftier fines for smugglers and increased funding for breaking up their activities, as well as a stricter definition of what constitutes migrant smuggling.

There will also be information campaigns on social media and messaging apps, where most crossings are organised, and the EU says it will work with social media companies.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said there was a need for a Global Alliance to focus on the transnational and multidimensional nature of the problem.

“In human history, people have always moved,” she said.

“But never before has the smuggling business been so profitable and so deadly. Human mobility is a fact of life. Migrant smuggling should not be. It can be defeated. It is a matter of political will. And we can only succeed together.”

The latest measures follow an agreement reached by the 27-nation bloc on sharing out the task of caring for refugees and migrants in crisis situations. A new law would offer more flexibility and time to countries to process asylum applications when numbers are exceptionally high.

The latest figures show in September, EU countries received 108,000 asylum applications, marking the highest level since the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016. If current trends persist, it is projected there will be more than a million asylum applications by the end of this year.

Six EU countries including Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, recently agreed to step up efforts to protect the bloc from illegal immigration and target groups of human smugglers that operate on its borders.

But Florian Trauner, vice dean for research at the Brussels School of Governance and an expert on migration and the EU, told The National: “The reasons why people may revert to a smuggler remain and cannot be simply removed with a law enforcement approach.”

He said there were very few opportunities for certain categories of migrants, notably those keen to apply for asylum in the EU, to enter the bloc legally.

New border measures including fences have made it difficult to cross the EU’s external borders, meaning boats are the only way to get into the continent for people affected by conflict and instability in their homelands.

“This mixture of factors suggests there will continue to be a market for smugglers,” Dr Trauner said.

He said the EU had long been trying to work with third countries on counter-smuggling, but the new alliance reflected a “renewed political emphasis” on tackling illegal migration.

“The current mood in Europe is certainly one towards more restrictions," he said.

“Political parties who call for more migration control are gaining in several countries. This mood is also reflected in the current negotiations on the new EU asylum law, which will bring new restrictions.”

In the UK, the Illegal Migration Act now means anyone arriving by irregular means can no longer claim asylum in Britain and will be removed to their home country or a safe third country.

The government wants to send migrants to Rwanda to have their claims processed and hopes this will deter people from making the crossing. Italy is pressing ahead with a similar plan to process asylum seekers in Albania.

The UK is also going after people smugglers in a bid to stem the flow of migrants and recently began working to intercept boats made in Turkey then sent into Europe to carry migrants across the English Channel.

An investigation by The National revealed trafficking gangs run a highly sophisticated boat manufacturing and transportation network as part their lucrative people-smuggling operations.

“The people who are being smuggled are seen as just products," Mr Cleverly told the UK Parliament.

"They are expendable in the eyes of those people smugglers and we will do everything we can to break their business model.

“In close co-operation with our international partners in Bulgaria, we have seized boats, we have seized engines. We are breaking the business model and we will continue to drive down those illegal small-boat crossings until we have stopped the boats.”

Others also want to tackle smugglers by offering safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. The Bishop of Chelmsford, a former child refugee who fled to the UK with her family in 1980 after the Iranian revolution, has introduced legislation to change the UK’s immigration law to introduce asylum travel visas.

“Such a scheme can help to undercut the business model of people smugglers encouraging refugees to take dangerous journeys across the Channel and the Mediterranean, by providing a safe, accessible and controlled route,” said the Right Rev Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani.

Rwanda or bust

For Mr Sunak, though, it's Rwanda that remains Plan A. At the weekend it was reported he wants to add so-called notwithstanding clauses into legislation to prevent judges from applying protection in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to asylum cases.

Joelle Grogan, a lawyer who is the head of research at UK in a Changing Europe, said such a move could isolate the UK and undo all the work it has done since the Second World War to establish legal frameworks to protect refugees.

"As a matter of constitutional law in the UK, an Act of Parliament cannot be struck down, it cannot be overruled," she told an event at the Chatham House think tank in London.

But she said "domestic law cannot remove your international obligations" when it comes to sending asylum seekers to countries where their safety can't be guaranteed or where they face being sent back to their home countries, which they have fled.

"It will just be terribly embarrassing because we have a phenomenal human rights records.

"The moment that any other country in the world can say 'well, if the UK can ignore these obligations, if the UK can ignore its treaties, if the UK can ignore the international system' as a precedent, that's deeply concerning from an international perspective."

In terms of legal options, she said the UK would be looking at other countries to which it can send asylum seekers.

"The Illegal Migration Act lists 56 other countries that are deemed to be safe, although eight are for men only," said Dr Grogan.

"I have no doubt that the government is trying to seek an agreement with one of those countries, a safe country."

Meanwhile, thousands of more asylum seekers like Ali will be enduring hardship and despair to reach Europe.

He describes how once he got to Libya, he joined another 200 migrants on a rickety boat that set out across the Mediterranean and they were then taken to the island of Lampedusa.

With the help of his family, who sent him money through the network of Eritrean Hawala bankers in Europe, he made his way from Italy to Germany before he arrived on the coast of France.

"I wanted to come to England because it's a country with human rights," said Ali. "I hope to go to college to study IT and graphic design. I did a bit at home but I was taken to the military."

Updated: December 04, 2023, 12:42 PM