Migrant Martyrs

Suspects? The UN should investigate the sophisticated and criminal network of trafficking Eritrean men, women and children.
Suspected middle men, women or broker? The UN should investigate the sophisticated and criminal network of trafficking Eritrean men, women and children.

By Yury Fedotov,

On October 3, in a desperate effort to reach the European Union’s shores, 365 African migrants drowned when their boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was the deadliest migrant-ship disaster ever recorded. A shocked public demanded that such tragedies must not be allowed to happen again. But they already have – indeed, with the same frequency as before.

One week later, a ship carrying more hopeful migrants capsized in Maltese waters, killing 27 people. The same day, at least 12 migrants drowned near the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Later that month, rescue workers in Niger found the bodies of 92 migrants, including 52 children, who had died of thirst after their vehicles broke down in the Sahara Desert en route to Algeria, and possibly to the EU.

The Mediterranean Sea has long been a watery grave for those fleeing war, poverty, and hopelessness to the east and south. But it is not the only death trap. Migrant smuggling is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting almost every state as a country of origin, transit, or destination.

The Lampedusa disaster may have forced us to think harder about human rights, migration, border policies, and why people risk all for a better life. But there is another factor that we must not overlook: the role played by the smugglers who deal in desperation, and for whom loss of life – in Lampedusa, Niger, and so many other places – is merely a cost of business. The smugglers’ reassurances of a safe and successful journey mean little; they care only about being paid, not about whether these perilous journeys end in death.

And duplicity pays handsomely. Although people-smuggling is a serious crime, according to the United Nations, it is a highly profitable one. Migrants pay smugglers sums ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on where the journey starts. Just two main routes, from Africa to Europe, and Latin America to the United States, generate an estimated $6.75 billion annually for the criminals who run these operations.

For the smuggler, the risks are minimal. Unfortunately, authorities in many countries too often confuse the criminalization of people-smuggling with that of irregular migration.

Too much attention is focused on intercepting undocumented migrants at national borders, rather than disrupting the criminal networks that may be operating behind them.

As a result, it is the migrants who bear all the risk.

Governments must shift their priorities to stop the smugglers while assisting the migrants – a principle enshrined in the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, which has been ratified by 138 countries and forms the basis of international action in this area. Regardless of their legal status, migrants should be afforded some basic protections, especially given that they often are asylum seekers, refugees, children, or trafficking victims.

The real criminals are the smugglers who cram the desperate and the destitute onto rickety boats or hide them in suffocating trucks with little regard for their rights or safety. Such inhuman and degrading treatment, to say nothing of risk to life, warrants the deployment of the full force of the law in launching criminal investigations, bringing prosecutions, and meting out stiff punishments.

To realize this goal, governments must work together more closely to prevent sophisticated and flexible criminal networks from shifting their operations to more hospitable territories. If we are to learn from Lampedusa – and prevent similar tragedies in the future – the smugglers must not be encouraged by impunity, and the desperate men, women, and children who often become their victims are not the ones who should be punished.

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Yury Fedotov is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
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