(Brussels)—I met “Majid,” a 34-year old Palestinian from Syria, along with his wife and their four-year old son, in December in Serbia where they had arrived after a three-month journey through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia.
As Palestinian refugees from Syria without passports, they didn't feel secure in Lebanon or Turkey and they told me their hope was to reach Western Europe.
To get there, they turned to the only available option: smuggling networks.
“We are forced to mingle with smugglers and mafia,” Majid told me. “If we knew we had to do this and if this was what we wanted we would have stayed in Syria.”
Majid and his wife paid more than €8,000 to smugglers to reach Serbia. They would have to pay much more to get to Austria, where they planned to lodge asylum claims.
Sadly, their story is not unique.
While doing research along the Balkan route, the third most highly travelled irregular path into the EU, I met hundreds of migrants and refugees who have fled violent conflict or endemic poverty, risking their lives by making the perilous sea and mainland border crossings in the hope of finding refuge in the EU.
But, instead of refuge, most encountered fences, pushbacks, and ill-treatment
At an emergency summit in Brussels on 24 April, called after over 1,000 boat migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea, EU leaders focused more on preventing departures than on protecting people fleeing war, persecution or poverty.
We’ve heard a lot of misleading rhetoric from EU leaders about fighting traffickers.
Let’s be clear about the reality. Smugglers help migrants cross borders irregularly; migrants seek out their services. Smuggling, per se, is primarily a crime against a state.
While smugglers also bear responsibility for placing desperate migrants in life threatening situations and should be held accountable, smuggling is different to trafficking. Trafficking involves force, threats, or deception and exploitation against people’s will.
The migrants and asylum seekers I spoke to in the Balkans turned to smugglers because border controls were tough and there were no other options for reaching the EU in safety.
The majority knew or learned along the way that they could drown at sea, suffocate in overcrowded trucks, or be struck by a train in Macedonia.
I heard over and over again how they were willing to take risks to escape even worse situations in their home countries and to search for the safety they could not access through legal channels.
For those who learned the risks along the way, as Majid did, "it was too late to go back”.
Campaigns against smugglers, like pushbacks and violence at EU borders, will not make migrants and asylum seekers give up – fleeing people will simply adapt. So too will smugglers’ networks.
Enhanced border enforcement measures will make the trip more dangerous, migrants more vulnerable, and smugglers prone to charge more.
“Adan,” a 23-year old Kurd from Kobane, Syria, told me that he resorted to the more dangerous route across the Aegean Sea to avoid the fences Bulgaria and Greece have built along their land borders with Turkey. “The boat started leaking and we all would have drowned except that the Greek coast guard saw us and saved us," he recalls.
So, what should the EU do?
EU countries can start by increasing the number of refugees they resettle, granting more humanitarian visas, and easing restrictions on family reunification.
All EU countries should give asylum seekers access to fair asylum procedures and respect the obligation under international law not to send people back to places where they face threats to their lives or freedom.
The European Commission should do more to hold member states to account for illegal pushbacks and ill-treatment at their borders.
Finally, the EU should overhaul current rules that put an unfair share of responsibility on countries on the EU’s external borders, and ensure a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers.
The European Commission is set to issue a set of proposals towards a comprehensive migration agenda on 13 May.
As the EU continues to develop its response to a migration phenomenon that isn’t going to end, it should focus on human rights and asylum and not the 'keep ‘em out approach' that has cost so many lives and caused so much suffering.
Emina Cerimovic is a Koenig fellow with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO