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Quantifying misery: The importance of tracking migrant smuggling

Quantifying misery: The importance of tracking migrant smuggling
Published 22 Apr 2015 

In recent commentary on the horror and tragedy now playing out in the Mediterranean Sea involving the deaths of many hundreds of migrants, there has been a tendency to discuss the numbers of migrants involved uncritically. This is partly due to the patchiness of data on migrant smuggling but it is also due to the complexity underpinning migrant movement.

While there have rightly been numerous calls for more humanitarian action to prevent further loss of life, this has not been accompanied by discussion of the significant gaps in knowledge about migrant smuggling routes. Some have suggested that counting the number of smuggled migrants is not all that important. Both are critically important and both need to be improved drastically.

Greater monitoring of smuggling can only benefit migrants. It can help inform responses designed to prevent the deaths of migrants planning perilous journeys in the upcoming European summer. But just as importantly, it can inform the development of sustainable responses aimed at sparing future generations of would-be migrants from the lure of smugglers' hollow promises.

As UNHCR realised many years ago, quantifying the number of people suffering and in need of assistance — especially over time — has provided a vitally important bedrock of evidence. UNHCR made considerable effort to improve its global statistics, and along with many other organisations (such as EU's Frontex), it continues to invest in its statistical holdings.

This type of work may not grab the headlines in the way humanitarian assistance does, but it is vitally important. [fold]

For example, the recent work of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), based in Nairobi, has shone a light on migrant flows from north-east Africa to Europe and Yemen as well as the exploitation, danger and extreme vulnerability experienced by migrants and potential migrants at the hands of smugglers. In a situation few would have foreseen, there is now a flow of migrants escaping conflict in Yemen to the Horn of Africa. RMMS is well set up to report on and analyse these flows.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) began tracking deaths of migrants in transit in early 2014 as part of its Missing Migrants Project following the tragedies in October 2013 near the Italian island of Lampedusa, when over 400 migrants died in two shipwrecks. IOM's reporting makes for grim reading and, as acknowledged by IOM and others, deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the danger and vulnerability experienced by migrants in transit.

So why is collecting and analysing data on migrant smuggling important? And how can it help migrants?

First, being able to quantify smuggling over time can highlight trends and put emerging issues into context. Increases, anomalies and changes in demography allow analysts, policymakers, migrant rights' groups, and NGOs to better understand smuggling dynamics and question prevailing assumptions. To give an example, the fact that the majority of migrants interviewed for a recent research project on voluntary return used the services of smugglers is significant, in that it suggests smuggling has become the norm in many locations. 

Secondly, quantifying smuggling in different locations provides geographic and geopolitical context. The greatest attention is often afforded to the most highly visible routes, such as in the Mediterranean Sea, yet some of the largest maritime smuggling flows are thought to be in Southeast Asia.

Thirdly, enhancing data holdings on smuggling flows as well as on potential movement allows for a keen eye on the future. The case for effective responses to migrant exploitation can be strengthened by greater appreciation of the scale of the problem. With smuggling operations changing radically in tactics and scale, it is data on the potential or likely flows that can cause policymakers' eyes to widen.

Responding to immediate humanitarian crises is clearly critical, but an effective and sustainable response requires robust data and evidence.

To suggest that the cessation of Italy's maritime rescue operation Mare Nostrum has had no dampening effect at all on smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea is sadly naïve. Unfortunately, the number of people being smuggled could have been much higher had the operation continued, and suggestions otherwise fail to acknowledge the marketing efforts of smugglers, who point to the humanitarian services provided at journeys' end, including by European governments.

One of the world's leading experts on human trafficking and smuggling, Dr Anne Gallagher AO, noted recently that 'a state that is willing to do a bit better than others, for example by rescuing migrants in distress at sea, will inevitably incur a disproportionate burden.' The pivotal role of smugglers in opportunistically exploiting the good will of others for profit is at the heart of this tragic phenomenon. Some smugglers openly admit they are deliberately 'putting pressure' on Europe for monetary gain, including because they are angry about EU policy. The safety of their passengers appears to be of little or no consideration.

The horrific situation in the Mediterranean once again highlights the fact that the links between people smuggling, humanitarian responses and the international protection system are not well understood. Improving that understanding is a global priority.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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