Smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration

07 October 2013

Portrait of Dr Hein De Haas

by Dr Hein De Haas
Co-Director and James Martin Fellow, International Migration Institute

Dr Hein De Haas is Associate Professor in Migration Studies, Oxford Department of International Development and Professor of Migration and Development, Maastricht University. Hein De Haas' research focuses on the linkages between migration and broad...

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The disaster of the sinking of a boat on 3 October off the coast of Lampedusa, in which hundreds of refugees and migrants lost their lives, has already led to calls for a 'smuggling crackdown' among governments and international organisations. Over the past decade, this has been the usual reaction when such tragedies happen on the southern coasts of Europe.

However, such reasoning is turning the causality of things upside down. It is the border controls that have forced migrants to take more dangerous routes and that have made them more and more dependent on smugglers to cross borders. Smuggling is a reaction to border controls rather than a cause of migration in itself. Ironically, further toughening of border controls will therefore force migrants and refugees to take more risks and only increase their reliance on smugglers.

The phenomenon of irregular boat migration across the Mediterranean is anything but new. It has existed ever since Spain and Italy introduced visa requirements for Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and other African nationals around 1991. This forced many people who previously could migrate and circulate to Europe freely to cross borders irregularly. Over the past decades, an increasing number of sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees have joined North Africans in their efforts to cross the Mediterranean (here is a brief historical overview).

While sustained demand for cheap labour in agriculture, services and other informal sectors has been the main driver of this migration, a significant, but substantial minority is fleeing conflict in their origin countries. As long as no more legal channels for immigration are created and as long as refugees are denied access to asylum procedures, it is likely that a substantial proportion of this migration will remain irregular.

It seems practically impossible to seal off the long Mediterranean coastlines. To a large extent, border controls have been self-defeating. Increasing controls at the Strait of Gibraltar in the 1990s have not stopped migration but led to an eastward and southward diversification of African overland migration routes and maritime crossing points over the 2000s.

This has led to an unintended increase in the area that EU countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration. This area now includes the entire North African coast and various crossing points on the West African coast towards the Canary Islands (see The Myth of Invasion report I wrote in 2007 and the map above, which should be updated to include maritime crossings from the Egyptian coast and increasing migration through Israel and Turkey).

As a consequence of the increasing length and dangerous nature of journeys, migrants have become more dependent on smugglers. Over two decades of costly, mounting investment into border controls and rapidly increased funding for Frontex (EU's border agency) have not stopped migration, but increased the vulnerability of migrants, their reliance on smuggling and caused the deaths of an estimated 17,000 people over the past two decades. It is particularly worrying that the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' has blocked access to asylum for people fleeing conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There is a strong parallel between the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' in the Mediterranean and the situation on the US-Mexican border. Research has shown that the toughening of border controls and the erection of walls between the US and Mexico has not stopped migration, but has led to a deflection of migration flows towards longer, more dangerous routes across the desert, an increasing reliance on smugglers (coyotes), a rising death toll, and a reduction of circularity.

As I argued earlier, the actual magnitude of cross-Mediterranean migration (several tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands per year) is more limited than is often believed. Most irregular migrants living in Europe enter legally and then overstay their visas. Yet ‘harsh’ political discourse on immigration accompanying such policies is likely to reinforce the same xenophobia and the concomitant apocalyptic representations of a ‘massive’ influx of migrants to which they seem a political–electoral response. Policy making on this issue is therefore caught in a vicious circle of 'more restrictions - more illegality - more restrictions'.

Policies to ‘combat illegal migration’ are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to 'fight'. It is very disturbing to see how governments casually deploy belligerent terms such as 'combating' and 'fighting' to describe their attempts to stop migrants and refugees from reaching European territory. However, the real scandal is that governments and migration agencies such as Frontex shamelessly abuse tragedies such as the Lampedusa disaster to spend more money on 'combating illegal migration', which is only going to increase reliance on smuggling, block refugees' access to protection, and cause even more deaths at the border.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.