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Migrant smuggling to the EU – the need for a coordinated response

From national authorities to EU institutions and international organisations, it is imperative that efforts to tackle the threats are coordinated.

lead A wooden boat that carried 80 refugees during their flight from Libya to Europe can be seen at the exhibition at the state museum in Hanover, Germany, 6 April 2017. Peter Steffen/Press Association. All rights reserved.Migrant smuggling has emerged as one of the most profitable and widespread criminal activities for organised crime in the EU. The profits generated reach billions of euros every year and the demand for facilitation services remains high. Migrant smuggling is now a large, profitable and sophisticated criminal market; almost all irregular migrants entering the EU resort to paid facilitation services at some point of their journey.

Who are the smugglers?

Migrant smuggling to the EU is organised and controlled by sophisticated criminal groups displaying unprecedented levels of organisation and coordination. Present all along the migratory routes, smugglers act in networks; this allows them to offer tailored services at the various steps of the process, from transport and accommodation in origin and transit countries to assistance for the legalisation of the stay once the final destination has been reached.

The networks generally bring together various EU and non-EU nationalities, making migrant smuggling a truly multi-national business. Smugglers from over 122 nationalities have so far been identified.[1] The groups are often poly-criminal, also engaging in other criminal activities such as trafficking in human beings, drug trafficking, fraud or organised property crime.

Why are they a threat to the EU?

Migrant smuggling networks are highly flexible and quickly adapt to changes in their environment. They are well aware of existing policies and business opportunities and adjust their modus operandi accordingly. They do so by shifting routes and means of transport, but also the type of service they offer. For example, migrant smugglers increasingly rely on social media to advertise their services; they also use ride-sharing applications and peer-to-peer accommodation platforms to cover their activities. Such resilience and adaptability mean that law enforcement agencies must develop innovative investigation techniques and constantly be on the look out for new developments.

A key part of the migrant smuggling business model is supplying fraudulent documents used by irregular migrants to enter the EU, circulate between Member States or legalise their residence status. The types of documents on offer vary from genuine passport and identity cards rented to look-alike individuals to fraudulent travel documents or breeder documents (e.g. false work contract or marriage records) used to apply for genuine visas, residency status or work permits. As the quality of the documents is improving they become more difficult to detect for the authorities. This makes it more difficult to control the entries and creates the risk that potentially dangerous individuals might use this opportunity to enter the EU undetected.

Migrant smuggling is a highly profitable criminal activity featuring sustained high levels of demand and relatively low levels of risk. As a result, more and more actors are turning to this activity, sometimes blurring the lines between legal and illegal activities. Individual criminal entrepreneurs use opportunities offered by modern communication tools to offer ad-hoc services such as transportation or accommodation; they are opportunistic and tend to step in and out of the business quite quickly. We also see that Organised Crime Groups (OGCs) who were until now active in other fields are increasingly turning to migrant smuggling; they use their contacts and criminal resources to infiltrate this market and generate additional incomes. 

Last but not least, it should not be forgotten that although they might present themselves as ‘service providers’, migrant smuggling networks are not tour operators. Their core business is to exploit the vulnerability and hopes of migrants for their own financial gain. The high fees imposed may result in debt bondage that can lead to longterm exploitation after the migrant has arrived at his or her destination. Reports of emotional and physical abuse are common, particularly when it comes to women or minors. Finally the conditions in which migrants are transported often pose a direct threat to their safety. In 2016, 5098 people died in the Mediterranean alone;[2] this year, we have already reached 649 deaths.[3] This cannot be tolerated.

What can be done to address these threats?

Tackling the threats emerging from the migratory crisis is not an easy task. Many different aspects come into play and must be considered. This includes the push factors in departing countries; our border and internal security policies; as well as our approach towards legal migration, relocation and returns. The complexity and scale of the threat requires a comprehensive answer. In addition, considering the diversity of stakeholders involved, from national authorities to EU institutions and international organisations, it is imperative that efforts be coordinated.

Europol has a crucial role to play in that regard. Indeed, since it became operational in 1999, Europol has been an important centre for law enforcement expertise in Europe. It is a key criminal information hub providing intelligence and direct operational support to law enforcement across (and beyond) the EU.

The European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC), hosted at Europol, was launched in February 2016 to facilitate the cooperation between all stakeholders and give Member States a platform for information exchange and operational coordination. Within less than a year, data on over 17,400 suspected smugglers was submitted and the centre helped launch over 2,500 new international investigations.[4] The EMSC works closely with our other centres, the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) and the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), to build synergies between national and European experts across all relevant areas. In addition to providing analytical and operational support, Europol is therefore present in the Italian and Greek hotspots together with the EU Regional Task Force to perform secondary security checks aimed at detecting potential terrorist networks. Through the EU Internet Referral Unit, we also take an active role in disrupting online recruitment and smuggling services by monitoring their social media activity and working with industry partners for their removal.

The Malta Declaration made in February 2017 by the heads of state and governments of the EU is a key instrument in taking this cooperation further and ensuring that all aspects of the question are addressed. It promotes an integrated approach in which all relevant stakeholders are to join forces to address specific operational needs. It also has a strong focus on addressing root causes and improving the capabilities of local authorities dealing with the various aspects of migration in the departure and transit countries.

Europol particularly welcomes the forward looking approach laid down in Malta. We are now actively working, in close cooperation with our partners, to fulfil those important objectives. Due to our mandate, our primary focus naturally is the disruption of smuggling networks; other organisations are better suited when it comes to improving reception capacities or supporting socio-economic development in source countries.  EMSC is pursuing its efforts to improve the intelligence picture on migrant smuggling, close the intelligence gaps and increase the information exchange between law enforcement and other stakeholders (in particular with naval missions and the private sector).

We are also looking into possibilities to increase our cooperation with key partners in the region. A lot has already been achieved regarding cooperation with EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations (especially EUNAVFOR); we are now aiming at increased cooperation with the countries neighbouring Libya.


[1] EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017.

[2] IOM missing migrants project.

[3] IOM Missing Migrant project – 27 March 2017.

[4] European Migrant Smuggling Centre, First Year Activity Report.

The 2017 CEPS Ideas Lab – a key annual event on EU policy organised by the Brussels-based think tank, the Centre for European Policy Studies – asked how such core EU challenges as Rights & Security can be implemented with respect for the EU rule of law and fundamental rights. Cooperating with openDemocracy, we bring the resulting debates to this dedicated page.

About the author

Brian Donald joined Europol in 2007 as a Head of the UK Liaison Bureau.  In 2010, he took on his current role at Europol as the Head of the Office of the Director. In this role he has a specific responsibility for promoting cross-departmental coordination and is therefore active across all areas of the business.


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