Migrant smuggling is a dynamic global criminal activity. Poverty, social and political instability, as well as the limited availability of legal migration routes, push people towards criminal networks to facilitate their unauthorised entry, transit or stay in the EU. The journey to the EU can be extremely dangerous and smugglers frequently expose migrants to both life-threatening risks and violence. The loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea demonstrates the need for an assertive and urgent response from the EU.
Smuggling of migrants by sea is one of the most dangerous forms of migrant smuggling and often requires serious humanitarian assistance. To save the lives of those in distress at sea, EU countries' coastguards and naval services make major efforts with the assistance of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX).
Most irregular migrants originally enter the EU legally on short-stay visas, but remain in the EU for economic reasons once their visa expired. Effective and credible management of external borders is essential. The EU developed an integrated border management strategy, which aims to maintain high levels of security by using information technology (such as the Visa Information System) and biometric features (e.g. fingerprints) for identification.
The Commission takes strong action to prevent irregular migration through ensuring that each EU country controls its own portion of EU's external borders. Commission actions also aim to reinforce the effectiveness of EU’s migration management system and to ensure that fundamental rights of migrants are respected.
Such actions include legislative measures, some of which are already adopted and are now being implemented, while others continue to be discussed by legislators (i.e. the Council and the European Parliament). These include:
A humane and effective return policy, following 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 seeks to harmonise and support national efforts to manage returns and to facilitate reintegration based on 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 the success of the return policy.
The communication on Enhancing cooperation on return and readmission as part of a fair, effective and comprehensive EU migration policy is an important follow-up to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. It describes how the Commission intends to build upon the annual process initiated by the first assessment of third countries’ level of cooperation on readmission (carried out under the Visa Code) to tackle challenges on return and readmission and to work closely with third countries through partnerships.
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 strengthening the penal framework for these offenses.
In line with the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Commission has issued a communication providing guidance on the implementation of the EU rules on definition and prevention of the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence (C(2020) 6470 FINAL). The communication recalls that EU law does not allow the criminalisation of humanitarian activity, which is mandated by law, and it invites Member States to distinguish between the activities carried out for the purpose of humanitarian assistance and the activities that aim to facilitate irregular entry or transit, in order to exclude the former from criminalisation.
The flow of irregular migrants entering the EU reached unprecedented levels during 2015 and remained high in 2016. During 2016, EU countries reported new arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, many of whom turned to criminal networks of smugglers for assistance.
To prevent the exploitation of migrants by criminal networks and to reduce incentives for irregular migration, both the European Agenda on Migration and the European Agenda on Security identified the fight against migrant smuggling as a priority.
In May 2015, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling designed to transform smuggling from a “high profit, low risk” activity into a “high risk, low profit” business, while ensuring the full respect and protection of migrants' human rights.
Migrants in an irregular situation are more vulnerable to labour and other forms of exploitation. Trafficking of human beings is a different, yet interlinked crime, and the EU has established tougher rules for action against criminals engaged in human trafficking.
EU rules make sure that victims of trafficking have access to assistance, including the possibility of a temporary residence in the EU when they cooperate with law enforcement authorities or, for those Member States who foresee it, irrespective of their cooperation. The EU also monitors the implementation of the Employers' Sanctions Directive from 2009, making sure that employers who employ irregular migrants are appropriately sanctioned.
As a follow up on the EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling, a new Regulation was proposed by the Commission and adopted by the co-legislators in 2019 to step up the cooperation between the European Commission, EU agencies and Member States liaison officers deployed in third countries. The ILOs network aims to improve the exchange of information on migration, adopting a coordinated approach in cooperation with third country authorities. ILOs activities are of great importance to prevent irregular migration, fight migrant smuggling, facilitate readmission of irregular migrants, and in the future, the Commission will try to develop their role in facilitating legal pathways towards the EU.
In 2010, the EU set up the EU policy cycle for organised and serious international crime, better known under the name EMPACT (European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats). Among the EU crime priorities for the EU policy cycle 2018-2021, is the EMPACT crime priority Facilitation of Illegal Immigration (FII). EMPACT FII is a structured, multidisciplinary co-operation platform among EU Member States for disrupting Organized Criminal Groups which facilitate illegal immigration. At the heart of EMPACT FII, are the yearly updated Operational Action Plans (OAPs), which outline important operational actions of EU Member States and EU agencies (Europol, EBCGA/Frontex, Eurojust, CEPOL, EU-LISA, etc.) on fighting migrant smuggling. DG HOME participates in OAP discussions and meetings and provides financial support of OAP’ execution.
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum adopted on 23 September 2020 sets out improved and faster procedures throughout the asylum and migration system and sets in balance the principles of fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity. This is crucial for rebuilding trust between Member States and confidence in the capacity of the European Union to manage migration.