Migration and Home Affairs

Migrant Smuggling

Migrant smuggling is a profitable business for criminal networks with estimated annual turnover reaching multiple billion Euros. Smugglers use land, sea and air routes to facilitate illegal migration both into and within the EU and abuse the legal migration system to further their illegal business practices.  

Migrant smuggling is increasingly associated with serious human rights violations and deaths, in particular when it occurs by sea. The loss of migrants' lives at the hands of smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea is an acute reminder of the need to tackle migrant smuggling, using all of the legal, operational, and administrative levers available. The fact that migrant smuggling networks are closely linked to other forms of serious and organised crime including terrorism, human trafficking, and money laundering increases this urgency even further.   

What is the EU doing?

In May 2015, the Commission published the EU Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling   setting out a series of steps to tackle this problem between 2015 and 2020. These are grouped into four main priorities:

  • Enhanced police and judicial response
  • Improved gathering and sharing of information
  • Enhanced prevention of smuggling and assistance to vulnerable migrants
  • Stronger cooperation with third countries

The implementation of the plan is ongoing, alongside a number of complimentary initiatives to tackle migrant smuggling.

The Council Conclusions adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs ministers on 10 March 2016 echo the commitments to advance concerted action at EU and international levels against migrant smuggling and set out concrete recommendations to Member States, the Commission and EU agencies.

Operational cooperation

Operational cooperation between EU States' law enforcement agencies, relevant EU Agencies, and partner countries is crucial for clamping down on migrant smuggling. Through the EU Policy Cycle for serious and organised crime, Member States coordinate common priorities and operational action, including on migrant smuggling.

The EU law enforcement agency, Europol also plays a key role in supporting Member States' operational cooperation through the secure exchange of information, expertise and analytical support. In February 2016, Europol launched the European Migrant Smuggling Centre to support Member States' investigations (including pro-active financial investigations) and to increase cooperation and coordination among law enforcement agencies. The Internet Referral Unit of Europol also contributes to the fight against migrant smuggling, by monitoring online content and referring pages linked to migrant smuggling criminal networks to the relevant online platforms for removal.

The actions set out in the Action Plan are to be seen in complementarity with the on-going Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) EUNAVFORMED Operation SOPHIA in the Central Mediterranean. The purpose of this operation is to disrupt the business model of smugglers by identifying, capturing and disposing of vessels used or suspected of being used by them, as well as to train the Libyan coastguards and navy and contribute to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

EU presence at sea is ensured also by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), which among others, helps to patrol the EU's external border and collects data and intelligence regarding smuggling routes and the practices of the criminal networks involved. Frontex also provides support through satellite imagery in cooperation with other EU Agencies. In 2016, Frontex's mandate was strengthened, enabling it to operate outside of the EU.  

CEPOL, Eurojust, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) also support the EU's action against migrant smuggling.  

Work in third countries and prevention of migrant smuggling

The EU provides financial and technical assistance to third countries to support them to tackle migrant smuggling at source. This includes assistance in developing anti-smuggling strategies and legislation; building the capacity of law enforcement and judicial bodies to investigate and prosecute smugglers; and increasing the effectiveness of migration flows and border controls. In this context, a needs assessment study for the development and implementation of strategies to counter migrant smuggling has been prepared for DG HOME. The study looked at Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea and ECOWAS.

As part of its Partnership Framework to better manage migration in cooperation with third countries, the EU is developing dedicated "cooperation platforms" on migrant smuggling. These networks    facilitate information sharing and joint working between all of the actors involved in the fight against migrant smuggling. These include EU and Member State delegates, host country authorities, international organisations and immigration liaison officers (ILO). The EU has also deployed European Migration Liaison Officers (EMLO) to ease cooperation between various international actors and local and national authorities.

Member States' ILOs operate under the 2004 Council Regulation on the creation of an immigration liaison officers' network. The Commission is currently evaluating this legislation and expects to publish the results later in 2017.

The EU is also supporting information campaigns to raise awareness of the threat of migrant smuggling in countries of origin and transit.

In order to support the development of contextualised migration information and awareness raising campaigns, two studies have been prepared for DG HOME to better understand how migrants gather information about routes towards the EU, transport possibilities, about the smugglers that can facilitate their journey and the costs of this facilitation. The studies looked closer at the migratory route starting in countries of origin in West Africa with a transit through Niger and Libya as well as through Italy as a first country of arrival.

Common rules for sanctioning facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence: the Facilitators Package   

In 2002, the EU adopted rules to clamp down on migrant smuggling. Directive 2002/90/EC established a common definition of the offense of facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence, and Framework Decision 2002/946/JHA, reinforced the penal framework to prevent this crime by setting out minimum rules for sanctions.  Adopted together, these two instruments complement each other and are known as the Facilitators Package.

Under the Facilitators Package, any person who intentionally assists unauthorized entry, transit, or residence of a non-UE national in the EU, is to be sanctioned unless they are doing so for humanitarian reasons.

The EU is also a signatory to the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Council decisions 2006/616/EC and 2006/617/EC).

In line with the EU Action Plan, the Commission conducted an evaluation on the application of the existing legal framework and the findings were published on 22 March 2017. Among other sources, the evaluation was informed by the results of a public consultation on Tackling migrant smuggling: is the EU legislation fit for purpose.