The European Commission is taking steps to address the issue of irregular migration by focusing on criminal networks and proposing stricter penalties. With the aim of harmonizing legal definitions and sanctions related to human trafficking across the European Union, Brussels seeks to impose sentences of up to 15 years for traffickers involved in migrant deaths.
This directive, presented in Brussels, also aims to extend jurisdiction for prosecuting these crimes to international waters. By exploring ways to reduce the influx of irregular migrants, the Commission intends to enhance the power of Europol and strengthen cooperation among member states.
Impact of Irregular Migration
According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, an estimated 90% of irregular migrants entering the European Union make use of traffickers’ services. These “ruthless traffickers” have been responsible for the deaths of over 28,000 individuals since 2014, as reported by the International Organization for Migration. Not only do these criminals pose a threat to migrants, but they also endanger the EU’s security and the dignity of individuals. The level of violence exhibited by these criminal networks towards migrants and border guards has been on the rise, prompting the need for effective tools to combat them.
Profitability of trafficking in persons cannot be understated. The UN agency responsible for studying organized crime estimates that smuggling networks generate between €4.7 and €6 billion annually worldwide.
This activity has reached new levels in Europe due to various factors such as climate-related emergencies, conflicts, and demographic pressures. In 2022, there were approximately 331,000 irregular entries at the EU’s external borders, the highest level since 2016. Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a temporary decline in arrivals, recent data from Frontex indicates an 18% increase in crossings compared to the previous year.
Harmonizing Penalties and Reducing Discrepancies
Currently, there exists a European legal framework addressing the facilitation of unauthorized entries. However, the European Commission acknowledges the need to update this framework, as penalties for different offenses related to human trafficking vary significantly among member states. Brussels believes that harmonizing these penalties will have a deterrent effect, preventing traffickers from seeking out jurisdictions with less severe legislation.
Maximum penalty for “facilitating unauthorized entry and transit” without aggravating factors ranges from one year in Belgium and Spain (with Spanish law including several aggravating circumstances carrying a maximum penalty of up to eight years) to a maximum of ten years in Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Ireland. Similarly, penalties for “facilitating residence” range from one year in five member states, including Spain, Austria, and the Czech Republic, to fifteen years in Cyprus.
The proposed directive establishes criteria for imposing higher penalties (between 10 and 15 years) in aggravated cases involving violence, minors, vulnerability, or when the offender is a public official. Furthermore, the directive emphasizes that these penalties should also apply to attempted irregular entries, even if unsuccessful.
Clarifying Definitions and Online Facilitation
The proposed directive sets out the requirement of profit as a key element for considering an act as “facilitation” or trafficking. It also includes the condition that there must be a high probability of causing serious harm to an individual.
By refining the definition, Brussels addresses concerns raised by human rights organizations, rescue groups, and civil rights advocates who argue that in some countries, humanitarian actions assisting migrants can be criminalized.
This has been the case in Greece, Italy, and Denmark (though the latter is exempt from adopting this directive). The Commission also stresses that migrants should not be held criminally liable for resorting to smuggling networks to reach the EU.
Brussels further calls for the recognition of specific offenses when these crimes are facilitated, coordinated, or promoted online. Online content that publicly incites entry or provides assistance should be considered “illicit content” and treated accordingly.
Commission aims to enable member states to prosecute and punish offenses committed aboard vessels and aircraft registered under their flag, as well as offenses committed in international waters en route to the EU.
Strengthening Enforcement and Collaboration
In addition to proposing tougher penalties, the European Commission seeks to empower Europol by reconfiguring a specialized center to combat human trafficking networks. The Commission also urges member states to allocate specialized personnel to combat these criminal networks and enhance collaboration with Europol.
To support these efforts, Brussels plans to allocate an additional €50 million to Europol. However, securing these funds may prove challenging in a context of budget cuts and reassessment of priorities.
Brussels’ proposal for tougher penalties in the fight against irregular migration and human trafficking demonstrates the European Commission’s commitment to address this pressing issue. By harmonizing legal definitions and sanctions, the Commission aims to discourage traffickers from exploiting discrepancies among member states.
The proposal also emphasizes the importance of online regulation and the need to strengthen international cooperation. While penalties alone may not solve the complex challenges posed by irregular migration, this initiative represents a significant step towards a comprehensive and coordinated approach to combat human trafficking and protect the rights and dignity of migrants.