Conference on smuggling of Migrants

Strasbourg , 

As delivered

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to open this conference on one of the most pressing human rights issues facing the Council of Europe today:

The smuggling of migrants across international borders into, and between, our member states.

We should begin by being very clear about the definition of this problem.

Over recent years events in the European neighbourhood and beyond have led to the dual problems of smuggling and human trafficking.

The first involves people procuring the illegal entry of a person into a country in return for payment.

The second concerns recruiting, transporting or harbouring people in order to exploit them for profit, usually accompanied by deception, force or other forms of abuse:

An issue, as you know, that the Council of Europe deals with via our Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.

Both of these problems pose serious challenges to nation states and to international organisations including the Council of Europe.

And both merit individual, tailored responses.

But it is to the smuggling of migrants specifically that we turn our attention today.

This conference could not be more timely.

Every year, the summer months are of course the point at which this problem peaks.

And last year there were more recorded deaths than ever among refugees and migrants on the Mediterranean Sea, a great many of them having paid smugglers to send them to their fate.

The fact that this will not deter thousands more from seeking to make the perilous journey to European shores this year is testament to their deep desperation.

The Council of Europe cannot solve the political problems that lead so many people to risk their own lives – and those of their children – in search of a better existence.

Nor is it within our remit to manage migration.

But we can and must ensure that the dignity and human rights of migrants in our member states are upheld.

After all, when any individual sets foot on our soil, he or she is covered by the European Convention on Human Rights.

This then is our remit, and our obligation:

To protect the human rights and dignity of all migrants, in line with the terms of the Convention and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

And that means combatting smuggling itself.

Because this is a practice that costs lives.

Smuggled refugees are subject to all kinds of human rights violations:

The right to life, the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and the rights of the child, with unaccompanied minors being especially vulnerable to a whole manner of mistreatment.

And the sad truth is that smuggling may be only the first link in a long chain of subsequent abuse including violence, forced labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal and forced criminality.

The problem here is not a simple one.

So long as there are people desperate for a new life, there will be demand for smugglers.

And so long as there is demand, there will be those willing to supply that criminal service for profit.

But we know that the current approach to this problem is insufficient.

Too small a number of countries are bearing too great a burden which, in turn, feeds nationalism, populism and xenophobia among their citizens.

Smugglers find it too easy to ply their trade, preying on unaccompanied children in particular, and organising cynical rings that tailor smuggling packages according to their clients’ budgets.

And these criminals feed off the goodwill of national authorities that, rightly, will not stand idle while lives of innocents are put at risk.

The Italian authorities, for example, take steps to rescue the overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels that smugglers launch from Egypt and Libya and which are not expected even to be able to reach Italian shores.

So to move forward, we must think more widely.

We need new measures that take into account the complexity of the problem, improve international co-operation and put migrants’ human rights first.

Yes, there are good examples of joint working between member states – France and the United Kingdom, for example, joining forces to break up smuggling rings in Northern France.

But those examples are too few.

We need ambitious new ideas that can be put into practical effect.

You are the right people to bring forward these ideas and to share existing best practice.

Over the past two years many people in this room have already done remarkable work in this area.

Notably, members of the Council’s European Committee on Crime Problems have explored the scope for a common framework for member states.

I want to thank you personally for that work, and to challenge you all today to go further still.

I am greatly encouraged by the quality of participants at this conference and by the three hundred and sixty degree approach signalled by your agenda.

All of the elements are there.

Your focus on prevention is an opportunity to consider ways of stopping smugglers in their tracks and deterring would-be migrants from paying for their services.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the roles that data collection and awareness-raising could play in achieving this and I welcome in particular Mr Raed al-Alzawi, who will offer his first-hand account of how smugglers operate.

Looking at criminalisation you can help define the sanctions, common standards and international instruments that will facilitate the investigations, prosecutions and convictions that are too few today.

I also welcome your session on international co-operation as a means not just to facilitate prosecution but across the whole issue.

Of course this means the Council of Europe supporting its member states and member states supporting one another.

But it also means looking at new ways to work with outside actors including international organisations.

Lastly, you are right to put an onus on protecting the rights of smuggled migrants themselves.

In seeking resolution to this difficult and tragic situation, we must never forget that our primary purpose is to protect the human rights of the victims.

That is our backstop.

So we need local campaigns and initiatives, yes.

But we also need long-term legal and practical assistance for victims of smuggling.

And we need every member state to ensure that migrants – whether smuggled or not – are treated fairly on arrival and supported so that they can integrate and contribute to society.

I have been very clear that over the next years, migration will continue to be one of the Council of Europe’s key priorities.

My appointment of Tomáš Boček as my Special Representative on Migration and Refugees is testament to my personal commitment to this theme.

And our Action Plan on protecting refugee and migrant children confirms the Council of Europe will put children first.

So once again I thank you for being here today.

I urge you to bring forward new solutions to this ongoing problem.

And together let’s find ways both to stop human smuggling and, where it happens, to ensure the safety, dignity and rights of those who have come to our shores in search of a better life.