Why closing borders doesn’t stop smugglers

Annegret Mathari – SDA

7 minute read

The demand for smugglers' services increases when barriers to migration become bigger, experts say, and more "safe and legal routes" are needed for refugees and migrants.

GENEVA: Closed borders and deterrence have failed to reduce human smuggling or cut the number of refugees and irregular migrants on the move. 

On the contrary, the demand for smugglers' services increases when barriers to migration become bigger, experts say.

"The function of a smuggler is to facilitate movement where people can’t move for themselves; so the harder it is for migrants to move, the more smugglers are required," says Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

Smugglers are the symptom, not the cause, of the current challenging situations at many land, sea and air borders across the world, says Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

The OHCHR is concerned that current policies to address migrant smuggling are too often based on flawed premises.

It's commonly assumed that the responsibility for the terrifying situation at many borders across the world rests solely on the smugglers and that if all the smugglers are apprehended, then migrants will stop moving, Throssell says.

"Counter-smuggling measures, such as interception of migrant boats and heavily militarised land borders can have negative human rights impacts," she says.


To address human smuggling, UN organisations including OHCHR, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration recommend more "safe and legal routes" for refugees and migrants. 

"The only way to disrupt the business model of smuggling networks is by expanding access to sufficient affordable, safe and regular migration channels," says Throssell.

Better migration management is needed, agrees the IOM's Director-General William Lacy Swing.

"We need more legal avenues to give those on the move protection," he tells SDA.

"And we need to decriminalise migration so that irregular migrants aren’t put in detention centres." 

The often negative manner in which the public looks at migration also has to be changed. 

"We have to learn to embrace diversity because our societies are going to be more ethnic and culturally diverse," he says.

There should also be opportunities for a better future and dignity for refugees so they don't face the stalemate of years in camps or being marginalised in neighbouring countries.

"If we expect people to stay in communities with no future, there will always be a market for people who help them move illegally," Reitano says. 

That’s the lesson learnt from the movement of people from Syria and the Horn of Africa.

According to Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, "resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification are some of the critical tools which allow refugees safe movement to third countries".


The European Union needs to broaden its understanding of security, a Western diplomat in Geneva says.

"If human rights are not respected, there will be instability and migration." 

And conflicts at European borders have to be resolved. "We turned a blind eye to Libya," he says. The economic development of the countries in the south of Libya, for example, is also "very much on the agenda".

Reitano would like to see a better understanding of irregular migration movements to be able to take effective action.

In the context of migration to Europe, there is no single industry, she says. There are several local markets serviced by a large network of players that enable transnational movement. 

In each hub and along the major routes, the smuggling market needs to be analysed in order to understand the motivations of those moving through the route, those engaged in the trade, those who protect it, and those who profit from it.

Success stories like that of the western Libyan town of Zuwara could be studied further to further separate the interests of armed groups from those of the communities they purportedly serve, Reitano says.

Zuwara had smuggled people for two decades, but it has voluntarily relinquished this trade following three shipwrecks off the town’s coast that killed 650 people in August 2015. The town's Amazigh (Berber) residents had also long been frustrated that their name had become synonymous with smuggling.

Governments may not always be the ideal counterpart, according to Reitano. Rather than providing development assistance to national governments, programs could target specific groups involved in facilitating smuggling. 

Development assistance would then be allocated according to their priorities, rather than those of the central government.


Promoting regional migration, according to development experts, also has a positive effect in supporting developing countries’ governments to create jobs.

"South-south migration is a big topic," says Marina Manke, head of the IOM's Labor Mobility and Development Division. IOM has several programs supporting regional co-operation on labour mobility, for example, within the Colombo Process.

This is a regional consultative process on managing overseas employment and contractual labour for countries of origin in Asia.

According to the IOM, more than 2.5 million Asian workers leave their countries every year under contract to work abroad. A large proportion of workers from South and Southeast Asia head for the Gulf States, while others move to North America, Europe and Asian countries.

In West Africa, the IOM is working with the Economic Community of West African States to maximise the development potential of the community’s Free Movement and Migration project.

Migration data management, border management, labour migration and counter-trafficking are key areas covered by the project.


Experts agree migration is largely a positive phenomenon. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2016, is a reminder of "the positive contribution made by migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development".

In destination countries, migrants play an important role in supporting economies with ageing populations and deficits in the labour force, the IOM's Swing says, and countries of origin benefit from the remittances of migrants sent back to local communities. 

According to the World Bank, in 2015, remittances were worth $US25 billion (22.4 billion euro) in Mexico and $US21 billion (18.7 billion euro) in Nigeria. Remittances are often a strong driver of development linked to the reduction in poverty, improved health and education, and increases in business investment.

The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants launched a two-year process to draft a Global Compact on Refugees and a Global Compact on Migration.

Swing is counting on the Global Compact, to be adopted at the end of 2018, so "we can set some responsibility for these people on the move". 

Presently there is no legal international framework that covers them, he says.

The Global Compact on Migration, although not legally binding, will set out standards to ensure safe, orderly and regulated migration worldwide, including guidelines for recruitment to avoid bondage or trafficking. 

The president of the UN General Assembly tasked Switzerland and Mexico with facilitating the drafting of the international framework on migration.