Responses to the Refugee Crisis: Corruption and the Smuggling of Refugees

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Global forced displacement of people due to confl ict, persecution, violence and human rights violations is on the rise. The current refugee crisis has resulted in the displacement of an unprecedented number of people. The United Nations estimates that more people have been displaced in the last two years than at any time since World War II. With record-breaking numbers of displaced people seeking passage to safe refuge, refugee smuggling has become a more lucrative and sinister operation than ever before.

The in ux of refugees to European borders regularly leads to tragedies that can be directly linked to people smuggling. In October 2013, more than 300 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa. In the same month, 92 people died crossing the Sahara Desert near the Libyan border. In August 2015, 70 people suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria. International responses thus far have been inadequate. In the absence of an immediate and uni ed global strategy to address this humanitarian crisis,1 the business of people smuggling will only continue to grow. Corruption is one of the primary facilitators of refugee smuggling. In order to ght this crime, and help refugees safely realise their rights, the international community must understand the intricate connections between corruption and refugee smuggling.

Refugees and other displaced people have rights under customary international law and a number of international conventions. The primary legal instrument describing the rights of refugees and state obligations in this regard is the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Convention stipulates that, subject to speci c exceptions, refugees should not be penalised for their illegal entry or stay. This principle recognises that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. To leave their home country (or the host country where a refugee camp is located), or to enter a destination country, refugees often need to resort to extralegal measures.

Human smuggling and traf cking are two of the fastest growing transnational criminal activities and one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime, second only to the drug trade.2 Although distinct offences, they both often involve a number of other crimes, including exploitation, coercion, extortion, fraud, bribery and human rights abuses, such as debt bondage, deprivation of liberty, and restrictions on freedom of movement and labour. While there are signi cant differences between traf cking in persons and human smuggling, they both frequently arise from similar circumstances, namely extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities, civil unrest, and political uncertainty. The criminal elements that engage in one often also engage in the other. Further, smuggled persons may become victims as well. In addition to being subjected to unsafe conditions en route, smuggled people may be subjected to physical and sexual violence or extortion. They may be held hostage until their debt is paid off. Moreover, a person being smuggled may at any point become a traf cking victim. Human smuggling may be further distinguished according to the type of person seeking to illegally cross an international border. The term migrant smuggling refers to any form of assisted illegal immigration – to escape war, political persecution or natural disaster, or to obtain better economic opportunities – circumstances that can make emigration extremely dif cult or even impossible. Refugee smuggling relates speci cally to a class of migrants who are eligible for protection under international law. Due to exigent conditions, they may have to resort to extra-legal measures to obtain such protection. For instance, national policies that require refugees to physically arrive within a country’s borders to be granted legal protection complicate the asylum seeking-process and fuel the black market for human smuggling. However, the distinction is important in principle only – the actual smuggling of refugees is no different from the smuggling of other migrants (save for certain speci c circumstances, such as departure from refugee camps).


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