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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Migration, refugees and criminal exploitation

Posted on 28th September 2017 at 11:10am

Lina Kolensikova and Emily Hough say that criminal elements exploiting migration routes are hardening public attitudes towards the very people who need human assistance and compassion the most.

Dealing with the issue of irregular migration, human trafficking and people smugglers should be a European-wide affair, not merely the problem of the countries that face these issues on a daily basis. This is witnessed by the deteriorating situation in the port of Bilbao, Spain, where thousands of irregular migrants are trying to reach the UK after the camps in Calais have been closed.

Bilbao has become an alternative route for the UK for criminal groups that transport illegal migrants. The familiar picture of tents, wooden huts can now be seen near the port’s ferry terminal and under motorways. Many people occupy abandoned properties nearby before trying to board ferries or freight containers, often repeatedly.

The Spanish media reports that since the beginning of this year, national police have arrested 1,765 people trying to reach the UK illegally. Brittany Ferries, which provides ferry services between the UK, France, Spain and Ireland, is the most popular target.

Authorities seem to be in agreement that a minority of those trying to reach the UK are refugees or asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, instead highlighting concerns about people smuggling and criminality.

Some are expressing concern at the high numbers of would-be migrants from Albania, because criminal groups from this country are connected to drugs and human-trafficking (see report in The Guardian). and these newcomers may bolster existing criminal groups. A Spanish police spokesperson told El Pais: "This type of immigrant from Albania is different from refugees, they come with money and telephones to last for weeks, and they work in another way."

The UK’s National Crime Agency’s 2017 National Strategic Assessment of Serious Organised Crime says that: “Despite tightened border security across EU states, maltreatment of migrants by crime groups and continued deaths at sea, we assess that for some migrants the perception of higher standards of living in Europe will outweigh the risks involved.

“It is highly likely that migrants will turn to organised criminals to help them cross frontiers. This may attract existing crime groups active in other areas to this criminal market.” 

Spain should be seeking quick solutions to deal with illegal camps and stowaways. Meanwhile, there should be a joint EU level effort to deal with “calaisation” of migration in other ports and countries. Solving this issue in one country can often simply lead to the problem moving to another.

And the problem in Calais is not yet resolved, despite the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais being demolished in November 2016, and thousands people being relocated across France – many of those evicted from the camps have returned and, according to aid groups, practically half of these are minors.

Any European mainland port, which has regular connections with the UK, could be attractive to illegal migrants. From a pure business continuity perspective, this affects passengers and the cargo maritime business, as well as causing law enforcement issues, let alone the tragic human element that this presents.

The sad fact is that criminal gangs, people smugglers and perpetrators of modern slavery are expanding their operations. This, coupled with initial mismanagement and the lack of joined-up action in dealing with the twin issues of irregular migration and refugees – have resulted in a growing absence of support and compassion in civil society, along with less tolerance and understanding of those who seek refuge and asylum when they have been forced from their homes by untenable factors.

Put simply, it is becoming ever more difficult for those in need to find the asylum that they seek and deserve. Attitudes are hardening and fewer people are willing to help; some political parties and movements are capitalising on compassion fatigue and growing public fears about the consequences of migration – and this is not aided by certain sections of the media. In addition, some European countries that are not yet experiencing this problem are using the long-term crises in France, Greece, Italy and Spain to make the case for not receiving refugees in their countries.

When you read the statistics in the infographic below from AOAV, it is not hard to understand why so many people – especially those from conflict-affected countries – have taken the drastic step of abandoning their homes and livelihoods and to seek a life elsewhere.

An international solution must be found to address the criminal elements that seek to exploit instability and tragedy, while simultaneously working on providing asylum, shelter and support for those people who have had to endure unimaginable trauma.

This infographic was originally published in a special edition of CRJ in association with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Explosive Threats. Data is sourced from the AOAV's report The Refugee Explosion. A more detailed analysis will be presented in the next issue of CRJ (13:1) published in October (image: Chris Pettican/CRJ)

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