The flow of irregular migrants entering the EU reached unprecedented levels during 2015 and remained high in 2016. During 2016, Member States reported new arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, many of whom turned to criminal networks of smugglers for assistance.
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 into, transit through 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.
The fight against migrant smuggling has been part of EU policies tackling irregular migration for 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 strengthening the penal framework for these offenses.
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 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.
In some cases, migrants continue to depend on criminals after they have arrived in the EU. Criminal networks can facilitate irregular residence, including through the production and supply of counterfeit documents and by enabling migrants to use other people's genuine documents to pose as an impostor. This is illegal across the EU under the 2002 Directive.
Migrants in an irregular situation are also more vulnerable to labour and other forms of exploitation. Trafficking in human beings is a different yet interlinked crime, for which the EU has established tougher rules for action against those criminals engaged in it. EU rules also 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 is also monitoring the implementation of the Employers' Sanctions Directive from 2009, making sure that employers who employ irregular migrants are appropriately sanctioned.
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 Border and Coast Guard Agency (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, Belarus and Nigeria.
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.