Everyone was horrified this week to hear about yet another tragedy at sea. Yet, nobody was surprised. Even if this time we have not seen the same outcry from our politicians that followed the death of over 300 people off the coast of Lampedusa almost one year ago, everyone seemed to agree that all should be done to prevent this from happening again. In particular, efforts should be stepped up to fight smuggling rings.

In the ‘20s, mafia groups celebrated the prohibition of alcohol sale in the US, as they could take up that profitable underground market. Today, Libya’s most successful smuggler presents himself as a businessman. The commodity is no longer alcohol but the promise of safety in place free from war and oppression. Smuggling is a lucrative business and one which knows no State regulations. Smugglers are criminals and we have just been reminded of the complete disregard they have for the people who are forced to put their lives in their hands. Last week, 500 people, including up to 100 children, drowned in the middle of the Mediterranean when smugglers rammed their boat until it sank because they refused to be transferred to a small vessel that was apparently unseaworthy.

The EU speaks relentlessly of its determination to combat smuggling. However, whether by act or omission, it’s undeniable that preventing people fleeing war and persecution from safely and legally accessing Europe is fuelling this market. Most nationals from countries where people are highly likely to be in need of protection cannot access the EU without a visa and they will most often be refused one if they apply for it. At the same time, apart from limited resettlement opportunities, the EU States provide hardly any ways for refugees to reach the EU in a legal and safe way. Even those who have family members in Europe and are in urgent need of a safe place are most often prevented from joining loved ones here by complex administrative procedures.

About half of the over 100,000 people who have arrived in Italy by boat so far this year are Eritreans and Syrians, people fleeing a repressive regime and a war-torn country. Our authorities are very well aware of that and once in European territory, and in accordance with international and domestic law, these refugees will be granted protection. Focusing on reinforced border controls and agreements with third countries to keep refugees out of the EU, while refusing to open up channels for them to get here in a legal and safe way is missing the point. The smuggling business will continue to flourish, and refugees will have to keep putting their lives in the hands of these criminals, as long as smugglers have the monopoly to give people in need of international protection their only chance to reach it.


This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 19 September 2014. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.