Will irregular migration to Europe increase again once COVID-19 related travel restrictions are lifted? Europol thinks so. In a new report, the European Union's policing agency also said the coronavirus pandemic is already changing migrant smuggling and trafficking.
In its latest report, EU law enforcement agency Europol has warned that the easing of coronavirus measures may trigger a surge in irregular migration towards Europe.
"A loosening of travel and movement restrictions is likely to result in an increasing movement of irregular migrants ... as they have been largely unable to make movements during the lockdown," Europol said.
According to the report by Europol's European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) published on May 15, "Prolonged economic instability and the sustained lack of opportunities in some African economies may trigger another wave of irregular migration towards the EU in the mid-term."
OUT NOW: Our annual report on #MigrantSmuggling brings together all the operations and information gathered by Europol in 2019 with a special analysis on how the dynamics of migrant smuggling and human trafficking are changing during #Covid19: https://t.co/3dERQ4ULM4 pic.twitter.com/wkEjjXT5ru— Europol (@Europol) May 15, 2020
While irregular migration from Africa to Europe has indeed slowed over the past two months due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and increased security measures, many African migrants remain undeterred in their endeavor to reach Europe.
Officers of the The Hague-based agency detected more than 5,800 cases of migrant smuggling and human trafficking in 2019, the report said. In the process, the officers allegedly identified close to 20,000 suspects.
New ways of migrant smuggling and trafficking
According to the Europol report, people smugglers also shifted their ways to bring migrants into the continent through illegal means. As air travel has virtually stopped over the past two months and border controls were tightened, smugglers reverted to land and sea routes. Increased arrivals to the Canary Islands, where 87 migrants were rescued over the weekend, illustrate this trend.
"Small boats are increasingly being used to cross river borders," the authors of the report wrote. What's more, migrants are also being hidden, not only in "concealed compartments of vehicles" under "life-threatening conditions," mostly in the western Balkans and the English Channel, but also in freight vehicles and cargo trains that move across borders.
Organized criminals and human traffickers would also try to exploit coronavirus-related restrictions on sex work, Europol said: Due to border closures, "criminals are finding new ways to abuse the vulnerability of irregular migrants wishing to enter or travel across Europe and those financially struggling, victimised in labour or sexual exploitation schemes," the report reads.
In the report, Europol also accuses Turkey of helping "large groups of migrants" cross the Greek border earlier this year when Turkish President Erdogan declared that the border to the EU was open. Subsequently, thousands of people attempted to cross into Greece. Most were stopped at the border, with some setting up camp on the Turkish side.
Last December, Europol supported Italian and French police in uncovering a criminal group that allegedly trafficked thousands of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants from Asia to several European countries.
In July 2019, the four-year-old European Migrant Smuggling Centre launched a task force to combat human trafficking networks as well as deal with the use of fraudulent documents, money laundering and the role of social media in illegal migration.
With material from AFP