Professor Heaven Crawley, from Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, an author of the report by the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis project, concluded that the refusal to open up legal routes for those seeking safety in Europe has increased demand for people smuggling on ever more dangerous routes, making the refugee crisis worse by forcing people fleeing conflict and persecution to undertake covert and treacherous journeys and that politicians have been ‘wantonly ignoring’ reality to maintain ill-informed government positions.
“The cause of the flow hasn’t been addressed, smugglers haven’t been addressed, deaths are going up and people who are in Europe are not being integrated as they should be,” Professor Crawley said. “The response has been an absolute failure.”
Far from combating people smuggling, the report found European operations, border closures and the tightening of asylum regulations in several countries was directly driving refugees into their hands, with every single person interviewed using a smuggler for at least one leg of their journey. One in 10 refugees interviewed in Greece for the report had attempted to find a legal way to enter Europe but failed, resorting to almost a hundred different and potentially deadly routes that often cost far more than a legal journey. European politicians frequently depict smugglers as part of vast criminal networks but the report found they are often found in asylum seekers’ local communities or social networks, with names and numbers travelling by word of mouth.
State officials, the military, law enforcement, and border guards are also involved in smuggling, researchers said, citing numerous testimonies of smugglers bribing police in Greece, Turkey and other countries of transit.
“The problem is there’s a huge political agenda around migration, so more pragmatic of effective alternatives are being overridden by political aspirations of leaders across the EU,” she said. “They’ve backed themselves into a political corner where it’s very difficult to do anything else.” Professor Crawley said the UK’s initial refusal to resettle refugees who had already crossed into Europe was “appalling” and said "All that response does is reinforce some of the perceptions that if you’re a ‘proper’ or ‘genuine’ refugee you stay in a camp and wait for however long it takes to be rescued, and those who make it to the EU are punished.”
Dr Franck Duvell, from the Centre on Migration Policy and Society at the University of Oxford, said: “EU politicians and policy makers have repeatedly declared they are ‘at war’ with the smugglers and that they intend to ‘break the smugglers business model’. The evidence from our research suggests that smuggling is driven, rather than broken, by EU policy. The closure of borders seems likely to have significantly increased the demand for, and use of, smugglers – who have become the only option for those unable to leave their countries or enter countries in which protection might potentially be available to them.”
Treacherous sea journeys are far from the only risk – researchers said the failure of the EU to resettle refugees or provide legal routes were forcing people to flee from one conflict zone to another at the risk of violence and abuse by both people smugglers and state authorities. Three quarters of people interviewed in Italy and Malta had experienced physical violence, with almost a third watching their fellow migrants be killed or die of illness. Among the horrors described are border guards shooting migrants trying to leave Iran, Syria and Eritrea, and people being raped, kidnapped, beaten and tortured or simply left to die in the desert while journeying through countries including Algeria and Niger. Many described a living nightmare in Libya, which remains in a widespread state of lawlessness following the British-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi and subsequent civil war, with rival armed groups including Isis locked in bloody competition for control. Many refugees reported being detained and tortured either for ransoms of thousands of dollars, or forced into labour or prostitution to earn their freedom.
Researchers says Libya was one of many countries where “refugees” and “economic migrants” cannot be clearly defined.
“The definition is just out of kilter with reality,” Professor Crawley said. “The longer and more protracted the journey is, the more likely it is people move out of those categories and then back into them.” She gave the examples of Syrian refugees who were not directly affected by the war but fled because their livelihoods were destroyed, and migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa caught up in the Libyan conflict.