Nearly forty experts from the Eastern Neighbourhood and EU MS gathered to discuss the issue smuggling of human beings at the Eastern Partnership Panel on Migration and Asylum meeting that took place in Vilnius on 10-11 June 2014. The two-day Panel meeting was co-organized by Lithuania and Belarus and brought together various representatives of government agencies, academia, civil society and international organizations.
The first day of the meeting began with an overview of the existing frameworks –and challenges- in addressing smuggling at international and national levels. After a series of tragic accidents at sea causing the death of over 500 migrants trying to reach the coasts of Italy, the European Commission was tasked with the revision of the current common EU legislation and the development of an action plan to strengthen the response to smuggling. All participants agrees that, being a criminal and a migration phenomenon at the same time, smuggling is and extremely complex issue and requires a comprehensive response in countries of origin and transit, including through of socio-economic development, as much as in countries of destination, through prosecution of smugglers and protection of migrants.
The difference between “human trafficking” and “human smuggling” was highlighted in presentations of IOM, ICMPD and La Strada. Clear differentiation of the two is essential not only in terms of qualification of the offence, but also, and in particular, in order to ensure that the appropriate response and assistance are provided to the smuggled or trafficked individual.
The EU agencies like FRONTEX, EUROPOL and EUBAM demonstrated a variety of approaches to ensure multi-level cooperation among the countries in the field of counteracting human smuggling, as well as a number of international instruments serving this purpose. All three agencies emphasized that although not having operational law enforcement mandates, their support to multi-country initiatives and coordination have proven to be effective and lead to improved results.
The humanitarian aspects of human smuggling were in focus of the presentations delivered by the EASO and PICUM, reminding the participants of the importance of access to asylum, non-criminalization for irregular migration and human rights of migrants in general, that should not be hampered in the context of smuggling cases. On the contrary, smuggled migrants are often in an extremely vulnerable situation in this highly unfair smuggler-migrant relationship The presentations inspired participants to discuss the right approach, encompassing strict immigration policies, the necessity to tackle socio-economic difficulties in the countries of origin and the need to ensure efficient and objective information campaigns are conducted in countries of origin and transit.
Innovative measures and national practices in terms of combatting human smuggling were discussed and shared by the participants and also presented through the discussion paper prepared prior to meeting by the IOM. Lithuania and Poland described the work of their border guard services from the particular perspective of states guarding external EU borders, emphasizing the high flexibility of the smugglers’ modus operandi and the concomitantly adaptive response of their services. Furthermore, they underscored once more that, since the process is not limited to country of origin and country of destination, the crime of human smuggling cannot be fought locally. Belarus elaborated on cases of abuse of legal ways of entering the state (for example entering the country under false pretenses such as studying or attending the hockey championship) for further smuggling to the EU.
The meeting included a study visit to the Lithuania-Belarus border check point, where participants could see instruments in place for detection of smuggled migrants and goods.