Migrants desperate to reach European shores take dramatic risks in the hope of finding a better life. They fall prey to organised large-scale criminal organisations that go after the big money. The European Commission has been urging EU states to pledge funds and equipment to EU border guard service Frontex. Northern countries have been criticised for a lack of solidarity with Southern member states. And the EU's asylum and immigration policies have been criticised for being overly restrictive, thereby forcing immigrants to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe’s shores.
Apart from being terrible human tragedies and a disgrace for Europe’s migration policy, these instances are also played out politically. Should we put more efforts and means into control? Or should we be more open towards migrants? Arguments can be found for both views and both are to some extent true. After all, on the one hand restrictive policies have seriously exacerbated the situation for refugees and irregular migrants (see the blog by migration scholar Hein de Haas. On the other hand, smuggling migrants has also become a huge criminal industry and the push for migration cannot be denied. It is also not very likely that European countries will and are able to admit all aspiring migrants with open arms and without selection because of the far-reaching consequences this would have.
One aspect, often neglected in the debate, is that not all human smuggling involves criminal organisations. The attention for Mediterranean tragedies tends to obscure the fact that the majority of irregular or illegal migrants in many countries – including the Netherlands- do not enter these countries by boat, nor with the help of human smuggling organisations. Many of these immigrants travel safely with a tourist or business visa, guaranteed by the helping hands of relatives and friends living in the destination countries. Only when they overstay their visa, does their stay become illegal. Others are smuggled in by family or friends on their way back home from a holiday or visit to their home country. Financial gains are largely absent and a relative or friend of the immigrant is often the smuggler. Other immigrants, without valid travel documents, employ local middlemen during their travels from country to country. They cross borders illegally by foot, by local transportation or they pay local smugglers only for help at difficult border crossings. They are not exactly luxury tourists, but their situation is incomparable to refugees on small fishing boats. Several scholars have documented that, contrary to how it is often depicted, high-risk human smuggling by large-scale, violent and professionally organised human smuggling networks seems to be an exception rather than the rule.
When reflecting on what should be done about the migration tragedies in Southern Europe, this is one aspect that we should take into account, especially in the Netherlands. There is no simple answer to the immigration tragedies we are now witnessing. But at least it is crucial to realise that, other than the recent tragedies might suggest, not all undocumented immigration involves criminal organisations. This may also help to be aware that in the fight against human smuggling, it is extremely important not to push migration further into the criminal realm. If EU countries really start to show solidarity beyond words in migration matters, this would be an important starting point.