On 28 November 2023, before a conference audience representing countries of migrant origin, transit and destination, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched a Global Alliance to Counter Migrant Smuggling. This is a major policy initiative not just within the EU but with an intent for global cooperation to put an end to what von der Leyen described as the “criminal business” of smuggling human beings.
Von der Leyen began with the humanitarian motivation for coming together on this: the stories of smuggled people, their suffering, abuse and sometimes death, caused through criminal exploitation by the smugglers who grow rich through their illegal networks. Partnerships have been established to deal with the humanitarian crisis, with good outcomes, but it is, she said, not enough. “We have to build a systemic response that puts migrant smugglers out of business and prevents loss of life.”
The partnership work that is already under way has begun to tackle the international network of smugglers throughout the routes which traffic not only people, but also drugs and guns, posing a security threat to all of the countries involved. The vision now is for a truly global alliance, with common goals, focusing on prevention, response and “legal alternatives to the deadly smuggling routes”.
The UK’s action on irregular migration
Is there a need for a global approach? A brief review of the outcomes of the UK’s national-level approach may help to answer that question.
Sir Keir Starmer has summed up the UK government’s approach to people smuggling as “gimmicks” that have an inadequate focus on what to do with people already in the UK. The government did negotiate payment for additional French police to patrol their coast but numbers of irregular arrivals increased dramatically from under 5,000 in 2020/21 to over 20,000 in 2021/22 and 52,530 in 2022/23 (ONS). There are around 170,000 in technical detention, most of whom cannot currently be legally deported, and are not being considered for protective status or asylum. The government’s flagship policy is to pay Rwanda to accept migrants at an estimated cost of £169,000 per person, which the UK supreme court recently ruled as illegal, because Rwanda is not deemed a safe country.
The UK has legal routes for asylum applications from Afghanistan (largely symbolic), Hong Kong and Ukraine. But anyone seeking to flee to the UK from persecution in any other country is deemed ineligible to apply for asylum. People who arrive legally but subsequently claim asylum may have their case heard, but case processing for smuggled people has virtually ceased. The backlog of people who were able to claim and now await an initial decision is 165,411. The UK has not, so far, shown any inclination to see merit in any extension of safe routes to prevent people smuggling.
It might seem obvious that one way to reduce irregular migration would be to ensure – through financial aid – that conditions in people’s home countries were conducive to a decent life. However, the UK’s spending on foreign aid has fallen from its peak of £15.1bn in 2019 to £14.5bn in 2020, and to £11.4bn in 2021. A subsequent rise to £12.8bn in 2022 included spending of around 29% of the total in the UK itself, meeting the costs of hosting refugees.
A global response to people smuggling
Stopping smuggling trips at source was announced by von der Leyen as the first key target for a global alliance. This will only be achieved, she said, by an international agreement to clamp down on “digital smuggling”, whereby journeys and crossings are announced on social media, organised on messaging apps and payment is via digital transfer. Tackling this will require cooperation across borders, and with online companies.
Von der Leyen also called for countries to adopt a united response to the crime of smuggling. This will require laws to be aligned, greater police and prosecution services cooperation, and globally concerted action to seize the assets of criminal gangs and bring down their financial networks.
The EU is updating its own anti-people-smuggling legislation with an updated definition of migrant smuggling, tougher sanctions and the creation of a European centre to combat smuggling, with a plan for much greater cooperation between countries and their agencies. This will reach out to other countries, and the UN Office On Drugs and Crime, which, as “the guardian of the UN Convention against transnational crime”, has a central role to play.
Migration and workforce management
As a final, but crucial, point, von der Leyen stressed the need for additional legal and safe migration routes. Record European labour and skill shortages can be balanced with migrant aspiration for work and education, with legal routes provided that negate the demand for the smuggling gangs. The EU, she said, will set up a talent pool to facilitate the mutually beneficial movement of people, “managed by the law, not the smugglers”. She outlined a sophisticated approach to matching aspiring migrant qualifications, experience and skills with a database of skills and experience shortage database, to address EU needs, as well as a plan to set up talent partnerships with countries in different continents.
But she emphasised that creating more opportunities for legal migration must go hand in hand with cooperation on the return of irregular migrants, though the overriding hope is that “The better we are at legal migration, the more convincing we can be in preventing irregular migration”.
The inaugural speech ended with a call to arms for the world:
“Human mobility is a fact of life. Migrant smuggling should not be one.”
Does the UK need migrant labour?
Let’s return to the UK situation. Does von der Leyen’s suggestion that Europe needs migrants apply to us?
The UK currently has 957,000 vacancies across many sectors such as health, social care, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. Instead of accepting that this a problem which needs addressing, the government makes vague statements about migration being far too high and suggesting restricting visas to people earning £40,000 per year, which would virtually cease applications.
Birth rates have fallen in the UK, as they have across Europe, and people are living longer, which means more elderly people to support and fewer working people paying essential taxes. (By 2025, the natural population is set to go into decline.)
Many thousands of people are not working, but huge numbers are not claiming benefits, presumably retired early on personal pensions. Many thousands are on long term benefit, unfit for work. The government once more reiterates the strategy of “getting them back to work”, but with NHS waiting lists around 7.5 million, the number unable to work is hardly a surprise.
We do therefore need legal migration.
Is the EU right?
Despite the obvious need, the UK government refuses to set up additional legal routes for migrants, instead trotting out a series of what they think are crowd-pleasing slogans. It is ironic that the hundreds of thousands of retirees who would have gone off to live in the EU had Brexit not happened are now staying in UK houses and using UK hospitals. And not only did the government not see it coming, but they also still haven’t realised it’s happening.
Britain has a housing crisis, but many young migrants don’t want a house, they want a room, and the chance to make money to improve their life. We cannot build the houses we need without them (assuming, that is, that the government could find a way to approve the planning without annoying the voters). The UK has increased visas for shortage occupations, but ministers (from the prime minister down) say migration is too high.
Having campaigned against immigration for so long, the present government seems unable to countenance managing it. However, a reported shift in public opinion on migration suggests they may on the wrong side of the argument. Perhaps it’s time to accept that not only does migration inevitably happen, it’s also necessary and beneficial, and the best way to stop irregular and unsafe migration is to create more legal routes.
Von der Leyen has thrown down the gauntlet to tackle people smuggling and begin to manage immigration; let us hope governments take up the challenge.