Migrant crisis: smuggling or trafficking? Politicians don't seem to know
To end loss of lives in the Mediterranean, politicians must understand what the problem is – not trafficking rings, but people smuggling on a vast scale
It is a basic idea: if you want to solve a problem, it is best if you understand what the problem is in the first place.
This principle seems to be evading many of Europe’s leaders in the face of the appalling carnage that is ongoing off our southern shores.
Over the course of the past week, politicians – Theresa May, Ed Miliband, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Yvette Cooper and William Hague among them – have been using the terms “people trafficker” and “smuggler” interchangeably in relation to those transporting refugees across the Mediterranean. Indeed, the Guardian reported on Tuesday that the captain of the boat that sank with the loss of more than 800 lives was being charged with trafficking.
It is not mere pedantry to take issue with this. Trafficking and smuggling have particular meanings in law and often require very different approaches. Those who are throwing around the terms with such abandon should know this.
There are three key distinctions between smuggling and trafficking.
Eritrea’s climate of repression, violence and paranoia, and its indefinite national service, is prompting hundreds of people to flee every day
Smugglers are paid by people to bring them across borders. After the border has been crossed, the transaction between smuggler and migrant ends. Trafficking is a very different crime. Trafficking means bringing people into an ongoing situation of exploitation and then profiting from their abuse in the form of forced labour or forced prostitution.
Migrants usually consent to being smuggled. A trafficked person usually does not consent or their consent is meaningless because they have been coerced.
Smuggling always happens across international borders. Trafficking does not. People can be trafficked from Coventry to Manchester.
While smuggled migrants sometimes become victims of trafficking, there simply is not the evidence to conclude that what is happening in the Mediterranean is human trafficking. Rather, we are seeing people smuggling on a massive scale.
Why the confusion among politicians over the terms? Surely, following the past year’s parliament debates on the Modern Slavery Act, British political leaders should be clear on the differences?
I suspect there is something else at play. In the past year, those in power here and across Europe have done nothing in preparation for the spring migration of vulnerable people from north Africa apart from reducing naval resources. Now, as we all reel in horror over the many lives lost at sea in under a week, politicians are having to cast around for excuses.
The conflation of smuggling and trafficking conveniently obfuscates the issue and buys political breathing space. It is a classic public relations move by those faced with evidence of their complicity in human rights abuses – or in this case, arguably, a preventable atrocity. When faced with such horror, it is easier to make grand statements blaming migrant deaths on evil traffickers than to seek the causes and identify proper responses.
Europe's piecemeal approach to this catastrophe has been pathetic, creating the market for people smugglers to thrive
What we are seeing across north Africa and the Middle East is not the machinations of organised trafficking rings, though doubtless some will take advantage of the chaos to enslave people. We are seeing a refugee convulsion, similar, but smaller in scale, to that which affected central and eastern Europe at the end of the second world war.
Back then, the crisis was dealt with in some measure by a concerted international response to provide relief and safe migration. Seventy years on, Europe’s piecemeal approach to this catastrophe has to date been pathetic, creating the market for people smugglers to thrive.
The events of this week make it plain that a greatly enlarged maritime search and rescue operation is urgently needed. But like any humanitarian response this is not a solution to the crisis. It is a means to reduce the numbers who are dying until a solution can be found. This must include a rethinking of the idea of “fortress Europe” and the establishment, perhaps through the deployment of UN peacekeepers, of safe migration routes for the refugees who have ended up on the coast of north Africa.
Until Europe’s leaders show an audacity of ambition sufficient in scale to meet the problem, their efforts will be forlorn. To begin with, they must ensure they are dealing with the problem that is actually facing them, which is not that of trafficking, an issue which they appear only to half understand.