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Short-term Wins, Long-term Risks: Human Trafficking and People Smuggling in the Mediterranean Area

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Tuesday Reitano
Deputy Director
Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Geneva

As has been the case over the past three years, 2018 has been characterized by the increasingly urgent efforts by European states to quell the flow of irregular migrants across the Mediterranean, put to sea in lethal ways by human smugglers in Libya. And 2018 is worthy of note, because it appears that those efforts are finally beginning to take hold: sea arrivals in Italy have dropped by almost 75%.

Since the Valletta Summit held at the end of 2015, the European Union (EU) as a bloc and more so through the direct initiatives of some if its Member States has expanded its efforts to address the ‘migrant crisis.’ The summit marked the launch of the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which included a range of incentives to African states to partner more forcibly in the quest for migration control. It included, for example, a significant package of support to Niger, whose northern border with Libya was seen as a key staging post for West Africans heading towards Libya’s coast. It also included investments in Sudan and Chad, which, despite their complex political and human rights records, were seen as crucial partners if flows of people from East Africa and the Horn were also to be reduced.
Individual Member States are reducing their investments in downstream development programming in order to support enhanced border security objectives.

These efforts have borne the intended fruit, in terms of reducing migratory flows, though not without the ethics of the EU being called sharply into question. In Sudan, a part of the efforts to interdict migrants have been carried out by former Janjaweed fighters, resulting in NGOs reporting grave human rights abuses by those forces against migrants and in border communities. The Nigerien government, having agreed at the behest of the EU in 2015 to criminalize smuggling through a new law, has clamped down aggressively on the smuggling trade. Despite the strain that this places on the economy, sustainability and stability of the country’s fractious northern regions, the government took steps to close down the migration hub of Agadez, arresting (largely low-level) smugglers and agreeing to take and dispatch migrants returned from Libya.