Smugglers today, heroes tomorrow?

During World War II my grandfather’s sister had no other choice than to hand over her young son to “smugglers” that took him via the sewer system in Poland to the harbour, and onto illegal boats to Israel. If it wasn’t for the “smugglers”, my mother would not have had the chance to reunite with her only living relative, after her parents who survived the Holocaust died at the end of the 60s.

Is history repeating itself?

Germany ‘Fluchthelfer’ – roughly translated as “escape helpers” – has helped people fleeing throughout history; during World War II, German Fluchthelfer helped Jews escape and hide from the Nazis. During the Cold War, they helped East Germans who were trying to escape the communist regime flee to the West. Today, they help refugees to move around Europe and escape war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria. While this is illegal according to the Dublin regulation, these escape helpers consider it to be civil disobedience. “All the escape-helping movements in the past have been illegal, but they were justified in the books of history afterward,” said one of the helpers, who is “confident that history books will acquit” the escape helpers.

Those individuals who helped black people during slavery moving from the South to the North in the United States were considered to be smugglers at the time, but are today considered heroes, said Eritrean refugee Yohannes. “Who knows? Maybe one day smugglers will be considered heroes too because they helped people find freedom.”

“One has the right to live without fear, and whoever helps to obtain such a right is a human rights activist, whether he is a smuggler or an immigration officer,” said Hiwa, a migrant who was helped by a smuggler to cross the border irregularly.

Professor Hein de Haas claims that policies to combat smuggling are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to fight. Increased border controls simply make migrants more dependent on smugglers, and increase the costs and risks of crossing borders. It does not stop asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing borders but diverts them to other crossing points. In other words, smuggling is a reaction to the militarisation of border controls, not the cause of irregular migration.

Deutsche Welle has reported on the profitable business of smugglers working from the ports of Libya, Turkey and Egypt. For a ship taking 1,000 passengers, the smugglers charge at least 4,800 dollars per person. This makes 4.8 million dollars in total, and even if the Italian border control confiscates the ship at arrival the smuggler makes 3.8 million dollars because the boat only cost 1 million. The smugglers blame the EU’s closed border policy for their profits: “you are the ones keeping us in work, if you continue behaving like this I just keep on earning more […] your closed borders and defense means more money for me, my organisation and network.”

Gaim, an Eritrean refugee in Addis Ababa, blames EU Member States, referring to the 366 Eritreans who died when a boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa in Autumn 2013.Many of them applied for family reunification visas, but they got their applications rejected. That is why they left. That is why they died.”

The devastating situation of migrants and refugees dying on the Mediterranean sea, as well as other tragic cases like the abandoned truck in Austria suffocating more than 70 migrants (August 2015) illustrate how many smugglers exploit people in unbearable and horrific conditions.  Although this is of course not true of all smugglers, some are service providers with an interest in staying in business, who care about their reputation and have an interest in delivering their services, argues Hein de Haas

It is important to make a clear distinction between those acting in solidarity by providing humanitarian assistance, and the smugglers who exploit people in vulnerable situations. Adding a  historical perspective of the equation allows one to question the intention behind the smuggling. Civil society representatives at the European Migration Forum in January 2015 looked persecution of smuggler and the importance of taking into account whether a migrant being smuggled is in need of international protection and if their safety has been cared for. If so, these circumstances should be considered as mitigating factors.

Somehow I have the impression that we hear more in the news about citizens’ responses to the humanitarian crisis, such as #RefugeesWelcome than we do about the results and effectiveness of European border management and security policies to actually catch “the big fish” of criminal smuggling networks. The Centre for European Policy Studies argues that the EU assumes that it can, with enforcement of laws, perfectly control immigration. As this conception is proven wrong, it calls into question whether the objectives of criminal law measures in immigration enforcement are proportionate to what they can actually achieve.

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