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Human Smuggling Demands a Human Solution

Human Smuggling Demands a Human Solution

Monday, 4 November, 2019 - 06:30

More is required from the British and other European governments: They ought to be more humane. They also should understand that people smuggling is essentially a transportation business based on demand from the “passengers.” What makes it work are the economic realities of migration. Ignoring the economics and stressing the criminality of people trafficking — a specific variety of smuggling that feeds slavery and cruel exploitation, including in the sex industry — are tactics hard-line politicians such as UK Home Secretary Priti Patel use to justify replacing reasonable immigration policies with ever tougher enforcement.

There are many possible responses to the tragic deaths of 39 undocumented migrants found in a refrigerated truck container in Essex. The one from the UK government should serve as an example of how to make human smuggling even more dangerous and inhumane.

It’s not clear yet how exactly the immigrants, apparently mostly Vietnamese, died. The relatives of one woman who could have been in the container received panicked text messages from her saying she was suffocating. The family had paid thousands of dollars to send her to the UK bypassing the official immigration channels. The truck arrived in the UK from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Clearly, a smuggling operation went horribly wrong.

Patel outlined the government’s response in remarks to parliament. There’s an intelligence-led operation to “to disrupt and deter organized crime gangs using refrigerated and hard-sided lorries to smuggle clandestine migrants.” Extra UK immigration enforcement officers have been dispatched to Zeebrugge. The driver of the truck was charged with manslaughter and human trafficking, and three more people have been questioned on suspicion of the latter offense.

“We must be ruthless now in our response,” Patel said.

According to Patel, “the motivations that lead people to try to cross borders illegally are broad and complex.” For policy purposes, however, it might be useful to consider the motives as something as simple as the wage disparity among countries. A large-scale study of irregular African migrants in Europe published by the United Nations Development Program this month revealed that 60% of these immigrants, from different countries and circumstances, cite the intention to work and send money home as their primary reason for traveling to Europe. For a further 21%, that’s a secondary reason.

According to the UN study, of those with an income, 78% are sending money home, which amounts to on average one-third of their European income. The study puts the irregular migrants’ average income at $1,020 a month. 

The average cost of traveling to Europe — including, of course, payments to smugglers — was, for the study’s respondents, $2,710. This implies that those who managed to find a source of regular income on arrival pay back that cost to their families and friends, who usually help put the money together, within just nine months. That’s a powerful economic proposition, which, apart from fueling irregular migration, helps supply the poorer nations with remittances.

According to the UN, remittances from both documented and irregular migrants to their families in “remittance-reliant countries” around the world reached $689 billion last year, three times the combined amount of official development aid and foreign direct investment to these nations. 

The UK has a target to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on international development aid. It spent 14.5 billion pounds ($18.7 billion) last year. Using World Bank data from the UK’s 2017 bilateral remittances matrix, I calculate UK-based migrants from developing countries transferred about $17 billion home that year. Of that amount, $147 million went to Vietnam, the apparent country of origin of the migrants found dead in that truck in Essex.

The UK would need at least to double its development aid budget, and make sure 100% of the additional money would reach ordinary people, to eliminate the economic incentives to migration.

That, of course, would be absolutely unrealistic — and so are expectations that tougher enforcement or a war on people smugglers will significantly reduce irregular migration. A recent University of Chicago study calculated that Italy’s major, European Union-backed 2017 anti-smuggler operation that involved funding the Libyan coast guard reduced migrant arrivals by 343 per week in the second half of 2017 — a time when between 5,000 and 12,000 of them arrived every month.

The same study pointed out that tougher border enforcement can actually incentivize smuggling, since migrants count on the smugglers to mitigate their risk. It’s the smugglers’ job to find the routes of less resistance and bribe officials; migrants would find it hard to do that on their own. And no matter how Western governments see the smugglers, their clients will often consider them legitimate, even morally and religiously motivated helpers who only charge them because they face big personal risks and expenses.

A reasonable policy aimed at preventing episodes like the mass death in Essex — and, more generally, the 4,000 deaths a year recorded on migratory routs worldwide — should contain elements of both enforcement and a better immigration policy. 

The enforcement part should consist of punishing actual trafficking — the kind of smuggling that involves burdening migrants with debts they can’t repay by working the exploitative jobs they’re forced to take upon arrival. That’s a form of slavery that can’t be tolerated in the civilized world.

Shrinking quotas don’t keep the migrants out — they just lead to more smuggling and more deaths. Governments could only displace the smugglers by offering the same services to work-seeking migrants, only risk-free. They could even charge for directing people to unfilled, relatively low-paying jobs that would enable them to send money home. 


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