Migrant smuggling is a profitable business for criminal networks with an estimated annual turnover reaching multiple billion euros worldwide. Smugglers use land, sea and air routes to facilitate irregular migration both into and within the European Union.
Migrant smuggling is increasingly associated with serious human rights violations and deaths, in particular when it occurs by sea. The loss of migrants' lives at the hands of smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea reminds us of the acute need to tackle migrant smuggling, using all of the legal, operational, and administrative levers available.
The fact that migrant smuggling networks are closely linked to other forms of serious and organised crime including terrorism, trafficking in human beings and money laundering increases this urgency.
A renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025)
As announced in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and the EU Security Union Strategy, the Commission has adopted a renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling for the period 2021-2025, following up on the EU action plan against migrant smuggling, which was adopted in May 2015.
The renewed EU action plan strengthens operational cooperation, and information exchange among EU countries and EU law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute migrant smuggling networks. It covers areas such as financial investigations, asset recovery, document fraud and digital smuggling. The renewed EU action plan adopts a comprehensive approach and seeks even closer cooperation with partner countries along the migratory routes towards the EU.
The renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling includes the following main pillars of action:
- reinforced cooperation with partner countries and international organisations, including through Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnerships
- implementing legal frameworks and sanctioning smugglers active within and outside the EU
- preventing exploitation and ensuring the protection of migrants
- reinforcing cooperation and supporting the work of law enforcement and the judiciary to respond to new challenge
- improving the knowledge on smugglers’ organisation and ways of work
The renewed EU action plan builds on the successful actions of the EU action plan 2015-2020. For example, the strengthened counter smuggling capacity of Europol by creating the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, and increased information exchange and operational cooperation on migrant smuggling among EU countries, in particular through the European multidisciplinary cooperation platform against criminal threats (EMPACT).
As regards to stronger cooperation with partner countries, the EU action plan supported establishing operational cooperation against migrant smuggling with non-EU countries along the main migratory routes towards the EU in the form of bilateral and regional cooperation. Furthermore, capacity building activities for police and judicial authorities in non-EU countries have been provided by developing common operational partnerships.
Strengthening the effectiveness of the Employers Sanctions Directive
In order to address illegal employment of irregular migrants as one of the drivers of irregular migration, together with the renewed EU action plan, the Commission also adopted a Communication on the Employers Sanctions Directive.
The Communication looks at the practical application of the Directive and identifies the necessary actions to strengthen the Directive’s implementation, focusing on three main actions: sanctions against employers, measures to protect the rights of irregular migrants, and inspections.
Operational cooperation between law enforcement agencies of EU countries, relevant EU agencies, and partner countries is crucial for clamping down on migrant smuggling. Through the EU policy cycle and its EMPACT priority "Facilitation of Illegal Immigration" (2018-2021) and "Migrant Smuggling" (2022-2025), EU countries, EU agencies and third countries coordinate common priorities and operational action to fight migrant smuggling.
The European Union Agency for law enforcement cooperation - Europol, plays a key role in supporting Member States' operational cooperation through the secure exchange of information, expertise and analytical support.
Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre supports Member States' investigations, including financial investigations, and increases cooperation and coordination among law enforcement agencies.
The Internet Referral Unit of Europol also contributes to the fight against migrant smuggling, by monitoring online content and referring pages linked to migrant smuggling criminal networks to the relevant online platforms for removal.
EU presence at the external borders is ensured also by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) which:
- patrols the EU's external border
- collects data and intelligence regarding smuggling routes and practices of criminal networks
- provides support through satellite imagery in cooperation with other EU Agencies
- provides support through operations in non-EU countries
Other EU agencies
The following EU agencies also support the EU's action against migrant smuggling:
- European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL)
- European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust)
- European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA)
- Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA)
- European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)
Work with partner countries to prevent and combat migrant smuggling
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum underlines the importance of developing comprehensive, balanced, tailor-made and mutually beneficial migration partnershipswith key countries of origin and transit.
Migration partnerships aim at:
- improving migration governance and management
- supporting refugees and host communities in partner countries
- building economic opportunities
- promoting decent work and addressing the root causes of irregular migration
- stepping up cooperation on return, readmission and reintegration
- developing legal pathways
- attracting skills and talent to Europe
Countering migrant smuggling forms an important part of these partnerships.
Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnerships
The Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnerships will be an integral part of the EU’s migration partnerships with countries of origin and transit. They will provide for a more coordinated and structured approach towards operational cooperation with partner countries to combat migrant smuggling. They will be based on a number of components, aiming at strengthening:
- legal policy,
- operational and strategic frameworks in partner countries and
- to increase the impact, ownership and sustainability of efforts to tackle migrant smuggling.
For the implementation of the Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnerships to be successful, they need to be supported by:
- authorities of EU countries, through the pooling of knowledge and resources
- EU agencies, in particular Europol, Frontex and Eurojust, in line with their mandates
- EU financial support through the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe (NDICI), the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance III, the Internal Security Fund, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Border Management and Visa Instrument, as well as other relevant envelopes, taking into account partner’s national strategies and ensuring their ownership
Common Operational Partnerships and the European network of immigration liaison officers
To better manage migration in cooperation with partner countries, the EU develops dedicated common operational partnerships against migrant smuggling focusing on operational cooperation between law enforcement and the judiciary. These partnerships facilitate information sharing and joint cooperation between actors involved in the fight against migrant smuggling, including:
- EU and EU country authorities
- host country authorities
- international organisations and targeted stakeholders
In 2019, the EU created the European network of immigration liaison officers (ILO network) to better coordinate officers deployed in third countries by the European Commission, EU agencies and EU countries. As part of the ILO network, these officers focus on:
- gathering and sharing information for its use at a strategic or operational level
- render assistance to return and readmission related tasks
- targeted provision of capacity-building activities to authorities
The liaison officers of the EU agencies and the European Migration Liaison Officers (EMLOs), ease cooperation between various international actors and local and national authorities.
- Study on best practices in irregular migration awareness campaigns - Final report: the study contains lessons learned on information and awareness raising campaign design and implementation.
- Needs assessment study for the development and implementation of strategies to counter migrant smuggling: the study examined strategies in Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea and ECOWAS.
- How West African migrants engage with migration information en-route to Europe: a study to strengthen the evidence base on communications for migration in West Africa and the Central Mediterranean route, as well as information gathering by migrants and asylum seekers travelling from West Africa to Europe.
- A study of the communication channels used by migrants and asylum seekers in Italy, with a particular focus on online and social media: a comprehensive analysis of the information and communication channels that migrants use upon their arrival in Italy.
2021: Renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025)
The renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025) strengthens further operational cooperation and information exchange among EU Member States and EU law enforcement agencies to investigate, and prosecute migrant smuggling networks.
It covers areas such as financial investigations, asset recovery, document fraud, and digital smuggling. The renewed EU action plan adopts a comprehensive approach and seeks even closer cooperation with partner countries along the migratory routes towards the EU.
2021: Communication on the Employers Sanctions Directive
The Employers Sanctions Directive sets the rules on sanctions for employers of irregular migrants, laying down minimum standards and detection mechanisms of illegal employment. It also sets out measures to
- protect the rights of irregular migrants, establishing mechanisms to claim back outstanding wages
- to facilitate complaints that can reveal situations of illegal employment
- to issue temporary residence permits to victims of particularly abusive employers to take part in criminal proceedings
The Commission adopted a Communication that looks at the practical application of the Directive and identifies the necessary actions to strengthen the implementation, focusing on three main actions: sanctions against employers, measures to protect the rights of irregular migrants, and inspections.
2020: The New Pact on Migration and Asylum
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum offers a fresh start for managing migration for the long term, based on European values and international law.
In the context of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Commission adopted a Guidance (C(2020)6470) aimed at clarifying that the EU rules on definition and prevention of the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence in the EU (the “Facilitators Package”) should not be interpreted in a way that allows humanitarian activities mandated by law to be criminalised.
The New Pact also calls for the development of a new EU action plan against migrant smuggling for the period 2021-2025.
2020: EU Security Union Strategy 2020-2025
The EU Security Union Strategy highlights as one of its priorities the fight against organised crime, including transnational crimes such as migrant smuggling.
2019: Creation of a European network of immigration liaison officers (ILO network)
The Regulation on the creation of a European network of immigration liaison officers (Regulation (EU) 2019/1240) aims at ensuring better coordination and optimising the utilisation of the network of liaison officers deployed to third countries by the Commission, EU agencies and Member States. This is done to respond better to preventing and combating irregular migration and related cross-border criminality, such as:
- migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings
- facilitating dignified and effective return, readmission and reintegration activities
- contributing to integrated management of EU’s external borders
- supporting management of legal migration
2017: Evaluation of the Facilitators Package
Commission evaluation on the EU legal framework against facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence: the Facilitators Package. Among other sources, the evaluation was informed by the results of a public consultation on Tackling migrant smuggling: is the EU legislation fit for purpose.
2016: Council Conclusions and the 2018 operational set of measures
The Council Conclusions adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs ministers on 10 March 2016 echo the commitments to advance concerted action at EU and international levels against migrant smuggling and set out concrete recommendations to Member States, the Commission and EU agencies. These were later formalised as operational set of measures published in 2018.
2009: Employers Sanctions Directive
This Directive prohibits the employment of illegally staying third-country nationals in order to fight irregular migration. To this end, it lays down minimum common standards on sanctions and measures to be applied in the Member States against employers who infringe that prohibition.
2006: UN Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea
EU signs the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Council decisions 2006/616/EC and 2006/617/EC).
2002: Facilitators Package
- Directive 2002/90/EC establishes a common definition of the offense of facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence.
- Framework Decision 2002/946/JHA sets out minimum sanction rules for crimes under Directive 2002/90/EC.
Adopted together, the two instruments complement each other and are known as the Facilitators Package.
Under the Facilitators Package, any person who intentionally assists the unauthorised entry, transit, or residence of a non-EU national into the EU, or, for financial gain, to reside there is to be sanctioned unless they are doing so for humanitarian reasons.
- Communication on a renewed EU action plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025)
- Communication on the Employers Sanctions Directive
- Commission Guidance on the implementation of EU rules on definition and prevention of the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence
- Regulation (EU) 2019/1240 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on the creation of a European network of immigration liaison officers
- Directive 2009/52/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 June 2009 providing for minimum standards on sanctions and measures against employers of illegally staying third-country nationals
- Directive on defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence (2002/90/EC)
- Framework Decision on the strengthening of the penal framework to prevent the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence (2002/946/JHA)
- Council conclusion on migrant smuggling (6995/16)
- Commission evaluation on the EU legal framework against facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence: the Facilitators Package
- Communication on establishing a new Partnership Framework with third countries under the European Agenda on Migration