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The Refugee Business

Extremist groups are financed in dark ways via billions of euros from people smuggling – to what extent does Europe share the blame?

Notwithstanding the fact that people in distress at sea must be helped, we should not close our eyes to the complexity of the refugee problem. It is an enormous business built on the illegal transportation of people in despair. Naive sentiments of concern, of the do-gooder variety, are not very constructive. Many refugees pay thousands of euros or dollars to the people smugglers for their passage to Europe.

In the knowledge that they probably will not be granted asylum, many destroy their identity papers en route. Without papers or proof of nationality, it is not so easy for them to be deported.

The German armed forces (Bundeswehr) have been deployed in the Mediterranean since early May 2015 – first to rescue people in distress at sea, and since June as part of the European Union Naval Force – Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR MED) operation, which specifically aims to combat smuggling gangs. Initially, the operation focused on reconnaissance and intelligence gathering about the smuggler networks, but since October, permission has been given to search and, if necessary, seize or divert suspicious ships.

Sea rescue nevertheless remains an important part of the mission – it is after all every seafarer’s duty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. Since May, the Bundeswehr has rescued almost 9,000 people from distress at sea.

The smugglers know about the additional patrol ships and are stepping up their activities. They give refugees further “guarantees,” since once they have left their own territorial waters, they will be fished out of the Mediterranean.

The increasing presence of gray ships in the Mediterranean reduces the risks for people smugglers and refugees enormously, and makes them more calculable. Smugglers and refugees alike are motivated by knowledge of “success stories” in the press and the fact that, in the best case, it is not necessary to cover the whole distance, but only part of the way beyond Libyan territorial waters.

The refugee business has become a hugely profitable industry, worth billions of euros. Extremist groups are also availing themselves of the opportunity to make money in this “market.”

In this respect, the mission of the Bundeswehr is ambivalent, since while they are rescuing people, they are also indirectly and unwittingly encouraging the migration organizers, and thus supporting organized crime, with its concomitant violence, forced prostitution, and human trafficking.

This does not in any way change the Bundeswehr’s current task of actively combating the people smugglers, since the actual smugglers themselves are not traveling in the boats. And as long as there is a demand for people smugglers, this demand will be served and exploited.

It is said that the refugee problem can only be solved through cooperation with the governments of the countries concerned. Joint action is required together with African and Near Eastern countries to effectively tackle the causes of flight. Until this happens, we are simply trying to alleviate the symptoms of the dramatic refugee situation. But what if these governments are one of the main reasons for the flight? The question of whether a humanitarian tragedy can be addressed by military means leads straight to the heart of the ethical and political conflict situation that has accompanied the refugee problem from the outset. The deployment of soldiers confronts Germany with the highly sensitive question of the extent to which Europe should intervene, for example, in the Libyan chaos.

It is true that the people smugglers include the sea rescue operation in their merciless business calculations. The more ships that EU countries send into the Mediterranean, the lower the risk in transit and the faster the smugglers’ profits accumulate. Europe therefore shares responsibility for the crime of people smuggling.

Of course, the act of fishing drowning people out of the sea is humanitarian and always correct. And the people who do it have the feeling of having done something important and right. But it can only ever be an emergency measure.

This is an unresolvable dilemma, from which it is impossible to emerge blameless. As long as no legal ways are set up, people smugglers and everyone involved in the business will profit from the illegal ways. This also applies to extremist groups such as the ISIS. 

Receiving centers in the countries of origin and legal escape corridors could therefore be a first step toward breaking the system of orga­nized people smuggling. But one thing is clear: a comprehensive strategy is needed. Hasty actions and populism do not offer a solution. What is happening in southern Europe has become a challenge for us all.

Author

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Michael Gmelch was the first Catholic military chaplain to take part in the 1st German Sea Rescue Contingent providing “humanitarian assistance for refugees in distress at sea in the Mediterranean.” He is a pastoral theologian and pastoral psychologist as well as psychotherapist according to the German Alternative Medical Practitioners Act and priest of the Diocese of Eichstätt. He is head of the Catholic military chaplain’s office (Militärpfarramt) in Flensburg, and ministers to officer designators of the Naval Academy Mürwik (Marineschule Mürwik) on the training ship Gorch Fock, and at sea as part of the operational and training flotilla (Einsatz- und Ausbildungsverband, EAV).

michaelgmelchBundeswehrorg