Europe’s rigid migration policy is creating an increasing demand for a business of refugee aid. Europol and the EU member states are now tasked with curbing this industry.
In December, the EU member states and Parliament adopted the “Asylum and Migration Pact”, which restricts the right to asylum to a large extent. Helpers of refugees are now also to be prosecuted more severely. To this end, the EU Commission presented a legislative package on 28 November to “combat migrant smuggling”. This “Facilitators Package” consists of two parts.
A new directive is to oblige the member states to monitor the work of smugglers using “effective and proportionate investigative tools”. In addition, the penalties in the EU member states are to be standardised. A further new regulation is to give Europol more operational and strategic competences for the prosecution of “migrant smugglers”. The EU police agency would then work more closely with the 27 member states. The agency, based in The Hague, is particularly focussed on the use of digital tools “at all stages of the process”, including social networks to initiate such illegalised “facilitation”. Increased cooperation with Frontex is also planned, with the border agency handing over positions of staff to Europol.
The Commission defines criminal facilitation of forced displacement as an act “that disrespects human life and strips people of their dignity in the pursuit of profit, violating fundamental rights as well as undermining the migration management objectives of the EU”. This describes an industry that was created by European migration policy in the first place: Without highly fortified borders, refugees would not have to pay third parties to enter the EU in order to apply for protection.
Many people die trying to cross the EU’s external borders. In its draft, the Commission also blames this on those helping refugees. “Activities of ruthless migrant smugglers, especially at sea activities of ruthless migrant smugglers, especially at sea, resulted in a staggering death toll of over 28 000 people since 2014”, it says.
There is no denying that the facilitators in question sometimes act brutally and often charge dearly for their services. According to the Commission, their annual profits worldwide amount to up to €6 billion. The EU border agency Frontex collected data on a total of 15,000 “migrant smugglers” in 2022, according to the explanatory memorandum of the two dossiers. However, it is doubtful whether it is true, as the Commission claims, that they “do everything they can to seeking in every way to maximise their profits”. After all, the motivation to help people on the run is multifaceted. Many of those prosecuted are refugees themselves and receive benefits from their helpers, for example if they operate the engine on a boat trip.
Others help people in need at sea or on land without asking for anything in return. These volunteers could also be criminalised under the new EU laws: According to the directive, the act should also be punishable if “serious harm” is caused to the victims. Anyone who “publicly, for example via the internet” “instigates” people to enter, transit or stay in the EU without authorisation is also subject to punishment. Many aid organisations in southern Europe and on the border with Belarus are already accused of such “instigation”.
On Tuesday last week, the Commission presented the two proposals in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Many MEPs expressed their doubts. Rapporteur Birgit Sippel, for example, called for humanitarian aid to be excluded from the directive. However, she does not fundamentally question the new law. “We want to put an end to human trafficking and smuggling and instead create safe and legal escape routes and more opportunities for legal labour migration to Europe,” the Social Democrat told “nd”.
Green Party member Erik Marquardt is also not entirely against the package, but criticises the fact that refugees and humanitarian aid are increasingly being criminalised. Right-wing extremists in particular have been trying for years to discredit voluntary helpers as part of a “smuggling mafia”, Marquardt replies to “nd”. “It is astonishing that many democratic parties are also increasingly adopting this interpretation”, he says.
“The Commission’s proposal completely misses the complexity of irregular migration,” says Cornelia Ernst, MEP for the Left. Both dossiers would have “direct and indirect effects on the safety and rights of people on the move”. Even now, many people seeking protection face lengthy pre-trial detention and harsh criminal proceedings, although in most cases their actions are carried out without criminal intent or under duress. Such criminal proceedings, even if they do not lead to a conviction, could also have a negative impact on applications for asylum or other residence permits, Ernst explained to “nd”.
The MEPs from the European People’s Party (EPP) who were contacted by “nd” did not wish to comment on the two proposed dossiers. Criticism from a human rights perspective is hardly to be expected from them either. In the LIBE Committee, Conservative Lena Dupont, for example, demanded that “violence against border guards” should also be included in the directive and called for more prosecution of “migrant smugglers” also outside the EU. Her party colleague Jeroen Lenaers is calling for more staff and equipment for Europol and the police forces in the member states.
Parliamentary work in Brussels and Strasbourg will be slowed down until the European elections in June, meaning that the two dossiers are not expected to be officially discussed until the autumn at the earliest. However, the member states want to have finalised their negotiating position as early as June. The prosecution of all forms of assistance to refugees could then be one of the first legal acts to be approved by the newly elected Parliament. Given the current right-wing shift also at EU level, it is unlikely that humanitarian aid will be explicitly excluded.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: The criminalisation of sea rescuers, as in the case of the “Iuventa”, could become law with a new EU directive (Selene Magnolia).