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The UNODC (2020) notes that human smuggling is becoming more organised and is carried out as part of professional criminal networks across borders thereby becoming a global issue. This essay critically discusses the global issue of human smuggling by bringing focus on how the refugee crisis in Europe led to the creation of criminal networks that provide routes and markets for human smuggling and how this presents difficult challenges for law enforcement in Europe. The refugee crisis precipitated by wars in Syria and other parts of west Asia, led to refugees coming into Europe through legal routes that were allowed by EU. The legal routes of migration allowed in EU for refugees also are used by smugglers and traffickers (Carrera, et al., 2015). The Eastern Mediterranean route is the most prominent one that is being used by the smugglers for human smuggling and this is the route that is also used mostly by the refugees from Syria and Iraq (Carrera, et al., 2015). Another prominent route is the Balkan route, which is also being used by criminal networks for facilitating smuggling (Mandic, 2017). Why migrant routes including the ones created for refugees are important to smugglers as well is because such networks, including routes and markets, do shape migration flows including the illicit migration flows as noted in one report which specifically states that migrant routes are like “autonomous social structures” that aid not just legal migration flows but also irregular migration flows including through smuggling networks (European Commission, 2015, p. 27).
Human smuggling is a global problem as a part of the larger trafficking issue and also as a distinct phenomenon of smuggling with consent (Gallagher & David, 2014). It is a part of the larger trafficking issue because it takes place within the wider frameworks and networks set by transnational organised crime groups that may also be involved in trafficking (Williams, 2013, p. 67). Moreover, there are troublesome similarities between smuggling and human trafficking in context of human rights violations of the smuggled people (Galeotti, 2014), and abuse, exploitation, or death of smuggled people. This background makes it crucial to understand the ways in which networks of transnational crime emerge and facilitate the phenomenon of human smuggling. An important point to note is that organised criminal networks within which trafficking is facilitated are also used for smuggling and the processes of networks and economic globalisation aid these networks (Gallagher & David, 2014). In this essay, the focus remains on the networks created in Europe post the refugee crisis as these networks which are used for migration of refugees are also used for smuggling of humans. However, it is worthwhile to note that these networks are the same that are proliferated by traffickers and smugglers alike and in that sense the problem of human smuggling gets conflated with the problem of trafficking and illicit migration patterns. How this forms part of the refugee migration routes is the focus of this essay while keeping the larger issue of human smuggling and transnational crime also as part of the discussion.
Human smuggling is defined as illicit movement of people from one country to the other with the consent of the people being smuggled (Gallagher & David, 2014); as such, smuggling as opposed to human trafficking, takes place within consent dominated paradigm. However, both smuggling and trafficking are part of the frameworks and networks set by transnational organised crime groups (Galeotti, 2014). Transnational organised crime itself is seen in the context of economic globalisation because it is based on availability of markets and a global financial system that aids both licit and illicit trade (Williams, 2013, p. 67). Human smuggling refers to the smuggling of individuals across national borders in violation of the laws of the countries and involves use of fraudulent documents to facilitate entry of smuggled individuals into these countries (Gallagher & David, 2014). As the UNODC (2020) notes, human smuggling is becoming more organised and is carried out as part of professional criminal networks. This issue of organisation of human smuggling as a part of transnational criminal networks places it within the context of illicit trade.
Illicit trade of humans in markets across the world, and in Europe (for the purposes of this essay) is facilitated by the growth of networks and the availability of routes that allow the trade across borders in human beings, be it smuggled or trafficked human beings. Growth of networks and routes for trade are facilitated by processes of globalisation that breakdown barriers between countries and their markets and increase engagement between market participants across national borders (Irogbe, 2013 ). The same processes are also responsible for the trade of transnational criminal organisations including those who are involved in human smuggling (Irogbe, 2013 ; Galeotti, 2014). Indeed, globalisation enabled those who are involved in human smuggling to access grey markets around the world where they can trade in smuggled humans or provide their services in the grey labour market (Stoica, 2016).
The next and more substantive part of this essay discusses how networks and routes emerged during Europe refugee crisis that facilitated not only the movements of refugees across borders in Europe but also smuggled people. Refugee movement is also part of migration patterns which create routes for illegal human smuggling because with the movement of refugees we see the redefining of migration patterns that also create market conditions for illegal smuggling of humans for labour markets (Pati, 2011).
As discussed in the previous section, economic globalisation led to breakdown of barriers between countries and their markets by addressing geographical, communication and logistical challenges so that there is better engagement between market participants across national borders (Irogbe, 2013 ) and allowed human smuggling to access grey markets around the world (Stoica, 2016; Gattinara, 2018). The situation has been made more complex by the EU refugee crisis that led to the creation of new routes and markets in Europe, which are also used by transnational criminal groups for smuggling people across European borders.
First, to explain the European refugee crisis briefly, this was triggered in the recent times by civil war in Syria which led to the outpouring of thousands of refugees into Europe (Ostrand, 2015). Apart from Syria, refugees also came from Afghanistan and Iraq and this led to the maximum refugees coming into Italy and Greece and then to the other parts of EU (BBC News, 2016). The refugee crisis refers to a transnational movement of people, with refugees seeking safe zones in Europe (BBC News, 2016). The crisis also led to the creation of new routes in Europe which not only facilitated the movement of refugees, but also of smuggled individuals (BBC News, 2016). Consequently, it led to the strengthening of the grey markets within which smuggled individuals could be sold. This led to a threat posed by human smugglers who take advantage of networks facilitated by refugee movements, so much so that EU has felt constrained to addresses this problem through EU Action Plan against Migrants’ Smuggling COM(2015) 285,30 EU Action Plan on Return COM(2015) 453 of 9 September 2015, 31 and Recommendation on Common Return Handbook (Carrera, et al., 2015). These efforts of the EU have become essential in the light of the ongoing refugee crisis and its link with the human smuggling.
The more pressing question here is how the routes and markets created through the refugee crisis has also aided the human smugglers to bring in migrants to Europe through illicit methods. In a report, Europol has detailed the ways in which smuggling is aided by the routes created for the migrant crisis (Europol, 2018). The Mediterranean route is the most commonly used route for both the refugees and the smuggled migrants. As per the Europol report, a significant number of smuggled people have come via the Central Mediterranean route, and Libya is one of the main departure points towards Europe on this route with other departure points in Tunisia and Algeria (Europol, 2018). It is however on the other increasingly used route of western Mediterranean that a link between organised crime smugglers and migration is seen with the number of irregular migrants doubling in 2017 and smuggling starting point beginning in Morocco, Algeria and Ivory Coast (Europol, 2018). Europol report notes that there is a poly-criminal aspect that indicates the involvement of organised crime groups in human smuggling in this route (Europol, 2018).
Poly-criminal aspect refers to the different kinds of criminal activities that smugglers are involved in and points to the organised nature of these criminal networks; thus, these smuggler groups are also involved in money laundering, drugs trafficking, human trafficking, and arms trafficking (Europol, 2018). What this means is that criminal networks that are well established in the poly criminal businesses have added migrant smuggling to their portfolio and this presents a major challenge to the police and investigators because the organised criminal groups who are involved in poly criminal activities have sophisticated skills and expertise and knowledge of routes and infrastructures that are used for trafficking of other commodities. Post the refugee crisis of Europe, the same groups took advantage of the new routes coming up to support refugee movement and used their expertise the exploit these routes for human smuggling. The other important route is the Balkan route with the Western Balkans region via Serbia, Romania and Hungary or via Serbia and Croatia onwards to Western Europe being used by smuggling networks who have also established highly organised reception centres and transportation hubs that reflect the link between routes precipitated by refugee crisis and the use of the same by smugglers.
The challenge for the law enforcement agencies and the social workers has been that they have had to distinguish between refugees and smuggled individuals, which is difficult because the refugees and smuggled individuals have been taking the same routes to Europe and also come from same countries like Syria and Libya. A report by the European Commission in 2015 found evidence of this challenge where it was noted that smugglers in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece have set up operations on the land border where smuggled individuals are mixed with the refugees (European Commission, 2015). Similarly, in Italy, smugglers are found outside and inside of reception centres, so that even social workers in the centres are not able to identify who are the intermediaries of smuggled individuals. More challenging for the social workers is the problem of migrant networks which makes is difficult for them to differentiate between actual relatives of refugees inside the centres and smugglers enter the centres pretending that they are relatives of people living inside the centres (European Commission, 2015). Similarly, in Sicily, smugglers are now present in the reception centres and they facilitate the onward journey of smuggled individuals into other European countries by linking them to refugee groups (European Commission, 2015).
The link between refugee crisis in Europe and human smuggling is made out on the basis of use of reception centres for facilitating smuggling as smugglers were able to get involved in reception centres as workers or as pretended relatives of the refugees inside the centres. Due to the complexity of migrant networks, it is difficult and challenging for the social workers and law enforcement agencies to distinguish between those who are bona fide refugees and their relatives and those who are smuggled individuals. Also adding to the challenges faced by the law enforcement is the involvement of highly organised poly criminal groups in the activity of human smuggling. These groups are transnational criminal groups, who have expertise and experience in illicit movement of goods and people due to their involvement in trafficking of drugs, humans, and guns as well as money laundering. Their entrenched positions in the illicit routes and markets makes them proficient in human smuggling and makes it difficult for law enforcement. So the combination of networks and routes provided by refugee crisis and the highly organised nature of the transnational criminal groups makes it challenging for law enforcement to deal with human smuggling. During the EU refugee crisis, the conflation between the refugee movements and smuggling movements and ingress into Mediterranean and Balkan regions made it difficult for the law enforcement to distinguish between those who were refugees and others. The smuggling groups were able to take advantage of the new and dynamic routes offered by refugee crisis in these regions and bring in smuggled individuals using the routes and markets provided by the refugee crisis.
BBC News, 2016. Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911 [Accessed 8 December 2020].
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