In 2014, 276 113 migrants entered the EU irregularly, which represents an increase of 138% compared to the same period in 2013. To enter the EU clandestinely via land, air and sea routes, most migrants have recourse to criminal networks of smugglers.
Migrant smuggling is a fast growing global criminal activity. Poverty, social and political instability, as well as unavailability or limited access to legal channels for migrants and protection seekers, push people to seek the services of criminals who facilitate their unauthorized entry, transit or stay into the EU ('migrant smuggling').
The fight against migrant smuggling has been part of the EU policy to tackle irregular migration since more than a decade. In 2002, the EU adopted a legal framework on smuggling, composed of a Directive defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence and a Framework Decision on the strengthening of the penal framework to prevent the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence. EU States' law enforcement authorities take jointly operational measures, with support from EU Agencies, to disrupt the activities of organised criminal groups involved in the facilitation of irregular migration.
However, the irregular migration flows and in particular migration by sea, primarily along the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes, has increased exponentially over the past year. Over 220 000 migrants reached the EU through this route in 2014, representing an increase of 310% compared to 2013 (Frontex, 2015). This unprecedented influx of migrants and the ruthlessness of the smugglers, who often expose migrants to life-threatening risks and violence, require a strong response. Around 3 000 migrants are estimated to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in 2014 (UNCHR, 2015).
To this end, the Commission is working on an EU Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling. This will put forward concrete actions focusing both on preventive measures and on repression of criminal networks. It will envisage enhanced cooperation with countries of origin and transit, reinforced intelligence sharing, investigation capacities and prosecution to clamp down on migrant smuggling networks.
In some cases, migrants continue to depend on criminals after they have arrived in the EU. Criminal networks can facilitate irregular residence or migratory status transition, including through the creation and use of falsified and look-alike documents. The EU legislation criminalizes such facilitation of irregular stay.
Migrants in an irregular situation are also more vulnerable to labour and other forms of exploitation. The EU has established tougher rules for action against criminals involved in trafficking in human beings, combined with better assistance for victims.
The existence of an informal labour market is a pull-factor for irregular immigration and an en enabling environment for exploitation of non-EU nationals. EU States have agreed rules to address this problem. In addition to preventive measures and stricter inspections, the Employer Sanctions Directive envisages penalties for employers that hire and employ irregular migrants. The Directive seeks to make employing irregular migrants more difficult and to protect workers, especially those exploited by unscrupulous employers.
Images of migrants and asylum-seekers crammed into unseaworthy boats making perilous voyages to Europe have come to symbolise the tragic reality of the irregular migration phenomenon. Smuggling of migrants by sea is one of the most dangerous forms of migrant smuggling and one which often requires serious humanitarian assistance efforts. To save the lives of those in distress at sea, EU States' coastguards and naval services need to make major efforts, with assistance from the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (FRONTEX).
Moreover, most irregular migrants originally entered the EU legally on short-stay visas, but remain in the EU for economic reasons once their visa has expired. Effective and credible management of the external borders is essential. The EU has therefore developed an integrated border management strategy which aims to maintain high levels of security by using, for example, information technology (like the Visa Information System) and biometric features (e.g. fingerprints) for identification.
The Commission has taken strong action to prevent irregular migration, to ensure that each EU State effectively controls its own portion of the EU's external borders, build trust in the effectiveness of the EU system of migration management and ensure that the fundamental rights of migrants are fully respected.
This includes legislative measures, some of which have already been adopted and are now being implemented, while others are still being discussed by the legislators (i.e. the Council and the European Parliament). These include:
A humane and effective return policy - in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and based on the principle of giving preference to voluntary return — is essential to a comprehensive and sustainable migration policy. The EU is seeking to harmonise and support national efforts to better manage returns and to facilitate reintegration with the Return Directive (which lays down common standards and procedures for the return of non-EU nationals who are staying in the EU irregularly) as well as with the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Effective cooperation with non-EU countries on the basis of readmission agreements is also necessary to ensure that the return policy is efficient.
Return legislation is part of the Schengen acquis. Its correct implementation in the EU States is checked through evaluation visits led by the Commission, together with experts designated by the EU States and other countries participating in Schengen.
So far the Commission has been formally authorised to negotiate EU readmission agreements with Russia, Morocco, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, the Chinese Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao, Algeria, Turkey, Albania, China, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Cape Verde, Tunisia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
Agreements with the two Chinese Special Administrative Regions, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine, the Western Balkan countries, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cape Verde and Pakistan have entered into force.