Migration policies: effective ways to address smuggling

The European Council should review progress on the overall approach at its meetings in March and in June 2017, on the basis of a report from the Maltese EU Presidency.

Ian Borg
18 April 2017
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Delegates from an Informal meeting of EU Heads of State or government gather at the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta, Malta, February,2017. Leon Neal/Press Association. All rights reserved. Migrant smuggling into and within the EU is taking place on an unparalleled scale and at a record pace. The situation is dire. Understanding the state of play is important if we are to arrive at a constructive and permanent solution. In addition, European communities are expressing a plethora of doubts and this is reshaping the political context.

The smuggling phenomenon has a negative impact on communities in countries of origin, transit and destination. It compounds and intensifies the dangers suffered by migrants. It complicates and undermines efforts towards the development of an orderly, safe and humane system through which legal migration can be conducted. A revamp is needed, and this is precisely what the Maltese EU Presidency is striving to achieve.

The Maltese EU Presidency

The migration issue, in all its aspects, is one of the main priorities of the Maltese EU Presidency.

As a Union we are pursuing three objectives:

i)               To broaden the EU consensus on a long-term migration policy and apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity;

ii)             To never allow a return of the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further decrease the number of irregular migrants;


iii)            To ensure full control of the Union's external borders and get back to Schengen.

Within this context, two approaches are required to address smuggling – to take action on the supply side and respond to the demand side. The supply side calls for an effective policy of interdiction and combating smugglers. On the demand side, there is the need to improve conditions in countries of origin to remove the incentive. On the one hand, this involves a more engaged and effective diplomacy to prevent or resolve conflicts. At the same time, efforts must be intensified to ensure that development assistance programmes are effectively directed towards improving the living conditions of the countries of origin. This requires a collaborative effort across different policy areas, something our country had been pushing for within the EU for years.

Overall, the number of irregular migrants detected at EU borders decreased by around 70% between 2015 and 2016 as a result of the decisive action which has effectively stemmed inflows via the Western Balkans route. This is the outcome of the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement and of measures to support the Western Balkan countries in ensuring effective border controls.

Through the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU is delivering concrete results which go beyond stemming flows. We are providing shelter, healthcare and education in Turkey to those who have fled war and persecution in Syria. Furthermore, a number of those genuinely in need of international protection are being resettled from Turkey to EU Member States.

The Central Mediterranean route

The Central Mediterranean route scenario is somewhat different, thereby requiring an alternate approach. In the Central Mediterranean, too many people still put their lives in the hands of smugglers and attempt the crossing, mainly from Libya to Italy. They are fleeing economic hardship, and are not considered in need of protection under international law. This necessitates a set of actions to tackle this issue.

At their informal meeting in Malta earlier this month, EU Heads of State or Government focussed on this external dimension of migration. They discussed the situation in the Central Mediterranean route, and adopted the Malta Declaration, which focuses on measures to stem the flow of migration in the central Mediterranean.

In this context, they identified a set of action priorities, including:

- Training, equipping and supporting the Libyan national coast guard and other relevant agencies;


- Further efforts to disrupt the business model of smugglers through enhanced operational action by involving Libya and relevant international partners;


- Improving the socio-economic situation of local communities in Libya, especially in coastal areas and at Libyan land borders on the migratory routes;


- Seeking to ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants, together with the UNHCR and IOM;


- Supporting IOM in stepping up voluntary return activities;


- Enhancing information campaigns aimed at migrants.


Together with the Commission and the High Representative, the Maltese EU Presidency is now finalising a concrete plan for the implementation of this declaration to take work forward and to ensure close monitoring of results. This plan is to be presented to the Council at the earliest opportunity. The European Council should review progress on the overall approach at its meetings in March and in June 2017 on the basis of a report from the Maltese EU Presidency. Whether this will prove to be effective enough to disrupt smuggling activities and mitigate migration in the Mediterranean, remains to be seen. Clearly, much depends on the situation within Libya itself.

Other tasks and challenges

In terms of the EU's other significant accomplishments, as a practical step towards strengthening the EU's borders, the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) was established in record time; between December 2016 and January 2017 it set up operational pools for rapid reaction and for returns. More than 1,500 border guards are available to be deployed in joint operations at the external borders of Member States. To fill gaps, especially in terms of equipment, the EBCG informs Member States of the resources needed on a monthly basis.

The return of third country nationals who are not entitled to remain within the EU remains a crucial element – not only is it a question of credibility for the EU but it is also closely linked with smuggling. While migrants succeed in remaining in the EU in spite of return decisions, this fuels further irregular migration and encourages more migrants to put themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous smuggling networks. A more effective return policy should discourage migrants from embarking on the journey and contribute to reducing the profit for smugglers.

A sustainable migration policy requires that we address the root causes in countries of origin and transit.

Addressing the root causes means people do not feel the need to migrate in the first place, thereby suffocating the smugglers’ demand and destroying the business model. In addition to other policies, including the Valletta Action Plan, agreed at the Meeting of EU and African leaders in November 2015, the EU institutions and Member States have started working intensively with five priority countries of origin and transit in Africa as part of the new Partnership Framework. The aim of this Partnership Framework is to improve border management, discourage migrants from facing the risks of hazardous journeys, facilitate returns and provide socio-economic alternatives.

These objectives are being mainstreamed into other external instruments and policies of the EU and its Member States. In December 2016, the European Council welcomed progress on the compacts and the growing ownership of this process in the partner countries.

The EU is also reflecting on how the objectives of the Partnership Framework could be translated into cooperation with other countries. In this context, the Council reached a partial agreement on the European Fund for Sustainable Development in December 2016, and work with the EP is set to start very soon in order to have the relevant Regulation adopted by May this year.

At the same time, we must not forget the internal dimension which necessitates the effective application of principles of responsibility and solidarity. In this spirit, the Maltese EU Presidency will continue to lead the discussion on the review of the Common European Asylum System with the aim of achieving as much progress as possible.

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.

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