How to break the business model of smugglers

How to break the business model of smugglers

The temporary protection directive: the biggest anti-smuggling operation ever?

On September 13th, in her State of the Union address, President Von der Leyen put the “fight against smuggling” as a central element to the EU approach to migration management, calling for the organization of an international conference on the subject. A day later, during a visit to Europol in The Hague, UK opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the UK should put smuggling “on a par with the other three big security threats we face — climate change, hostile foreign powers and terrorism” and promised to treat smugglers like terrorists if elected. And on September 20th,  in her speech at the 78th United Nations General Assembly, the Italian Prime Minister Meloni called on UN member states to  “wage a global war without mercy” on smugglers, which she called “the slave-traders of the Third Millennium”.

How to break the business model of smugglers?

The above shows how the fight against human smuggling has today, more than ever, become the cornerstone of nation states’ and multilateral organizations’ strategies against irregular migration and a primary concern for policy makers all over Europe, across the political spectrum, and both ruling and opposition parties. The key question that all seem to be urgently trying to answer is: how can we break the business model of smugglers?

The answer to this question is the subject of a longstanding divide between migration experts, on the one side, and policy makers and especially politicians on the other: migration experts tend to call for the opening of legal channels as a way to reduce demand for smuggling, arguing that it is the lack of (legal) alternatives which push migrants towards engaging the services of smugglers. In contrast, policy makers and politicians, as we have seen above, seem to privilege a narrative and approach based on securitization and criminalization.

The Ukrainian crisis model

The response to the Ukrainian crisis is quite a unique case study to better understand the link between legal pathways and human smuggling. At the very onset of the crisis, through the temporary protection directive, recently extended until March 2025, EU member states had formally opened an unconditional legal channel for all Ukrainians to enter, move around, and work within the  European Union.

How did this impact smuggling dynamics in the region? Between January and March 2023 MMC conducted 1,413 surveys with people displaced from Ukraine in Berlin, Bern and Warsaw.  One of the questions asked was whether respondents had to pay anyone – in cash or by other means – to provide transportation or documents to cross the border illegally during their journey.

The answers to this question provide a clear and unequivocal picture of past and current smuggling dynamics: in the context of Ukrainian displacement toward the EU, human smuggling hardly exists, as there is simply no need for smugglers. Among the 1,413 people interviewed in the three cities, only 62 (4.4%) reported having used smugglers to cross a border.

Comparing with other crisis situations

This research finding is even more striking when we compare it to data from other crisis situations, and related displacement towards Europe. Looking at data collected by MMC with Afghans in Greece and Italy between 2019 and 2023, for instance, we see that out of 1,115 Afghans we interviewed, all but 2 had used one or multiple smugglers to enter the EU. Similarly, out of 333 Iraqi and Syrian arrivals to the EU, interviewed during the same period, only 15 (5%) did not use smugglers.

The biggest crime prevention operation ever?

Pushing the comparison a bit further: what would human smuggling dynamics have looked like for people fleeing Ukraine if there would have been no legal pathways to enter the EU? Applying the same incidence of smuggling recorded for Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis interviewed in Europe, 95%, to the approximately 8 million who have left Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, means that approximately 6.5 million Ukrainians would have had no choice but to pay for the services of smugglers to leave their country. This would have generated a business opportunity for smugglers worth at least a few billion euros.

The temporary protection directive has disrupted the business model of smugglers on a massive scale. It is likely the biggest anti-smuggling operation, and possibly one of the largest crime prevention operations, ever conducted in Europe, having prevented 6.5 million smuggling crimes from being committed.

Of course, there is no counterfactual. We do not know what would have happened without the temporary protection directive, what other regular channels would have been available instead, what the smuggling market and prices would have looked like and if and how all of this would have affected the numbers of people fleeing to the EU. However, it is crystal clear that the availability of regular travel options – the temporary protection directive in this case – has had a tremendous impact on human smuggling dynamics.

The swift opening of an unconditional legal pathway at the onset of the crisis has suppressed the demand for irregular entry into the EU, making smuggling services simply redundant. Very importantly, this has also contributed to making the journeys of Ukrainians into and within Europe safer and cheaper, compared to irregular journeys of other nationalities entering Europe, including Poland.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the reasons why legal channels were created for Ukrainians but remain large absent for refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities, we are unlikely to see the same approach from the EU towards these other groups. Furthermore, even while an expansion of legal pathways would certainly obviate the need for many refugees and migrants to embark on dangerous journeys involving human smugglers, it would not be sufficient. Irregular migration will continue to exist and human smugglers will continue to be in business. In other words, while there is a very strong case for an expansion of legal migratory routes, expectations have to be modest. It not the solution that will end all human smuggling, unless what proponents are suggesting is actually a borderless world.

Lesson learned or just an exceptional example?

Nevertheless, it would serve European politicians and policy makers well – especially those so frequently concerned with the need to disrupt the smugglers’ business model – to at least acknowledge that by activating the temporary protection directive for Ukrainians, they did just that. They disrupted a potential business opportunity involving millions of ‘clients’ and billions in illicit revenue. As such, the “Ukraine model” should feature as a potential powerful tool to fight human smuggling in the upcoming international conference the EU president has announced, to review what lessons can be drawn and if, how and where the model can be applied to disrupt human smuggling along other well-known mixed migration routes.