Palermo, 3 October 2023. According to UNODC data, migrants pay up to 5,000 USD to cross the Mediterranean Sea1, putting their lives and safety in the hands of ruthless criminals who treat them as commodities. Along migration routes, many migrants suffer extreme violence and abuse at the hands of smugglers, including human trafficking, exploitation, torture, kidnapping and sexual violence2. What can be done by States to counter criminals engaging in migrant smuggling, while at the same time protecting the human rights of migrants? How to ensure that efforts are focusing on investigating and prosecuting the ringleaders in order to dismantle migrant smuggling networks?
Transnational organized crime, the smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons were the key topics discussed during a Ministerial Conference held in Palermo on 29 September, organized by the Italian Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The Ministerial Conference, marking the 20 years since the entry into force of UNTOC, saw the participation of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, and other Heads of delegations from 30 States and the EU. The meeting provided a unique opportunity to highlight the potential benefits for States of relevant international legal instruments namely, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, as effective tools to combat forms of transnational organized crime and related crimes in the context of migration.
20 years since the entry into force of UNTOC and its Protocol on Smuggling of Migrants, effectively responding to migrant smuggling still remains a challenge for States in terms of prevention as well as adjudication of cases, starting from the correct identification of those responsible for the crime. “Migration is not a crime, but migrant smuggling is. 20 years on, the Migrant Smuggling Protocol remains as relevant as ever. However, such international instruments and laws alone are not enough. There needs to be political will and the means to implement them,” highlighted Ilias Chatzis, Chief of UNODC Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section.
International cooperation and political will are then essential to unchain the potential of such international legal instruments. “The Palermo Convention and Protocols provide solutions rooted in the values of the United Nations,” emphasized Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC at the opening of the conference. “With strong political will and international cooperation, countries can make greater use of these instruments,” she further emphasized.
To effectively combat migrant smuggling, States need to target the demand that fuels the crime. “In over 85% of cases, it’s the migrant who makes the first contact, not the other way around,” underscored Claire Healy, Coordinator of the UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants. “Only an approach that addresses this demand can be successful,” she further highlighted. As per article 5 of the Protocol on Smuggling of Migrants, migrants shall not become liable to criminal prosecution for the fact of being smuggled.
UNTOC, signed in Palermo in 2003, is one of the most adhered to international legal instruments with 191 States parties to date. The Protocols on the Smuggling of Migrants and on Trafficking in Persons register respectively 151 and 181 parties.
By adhering to UNTOC and Protocols, which are legally binding, States make a commitment to fully implement their articles. “The fight against the smuggling of migrants and the trafficking in persons is an obligation on all of us who have ratified the Palermo Convention,” emphasized Carlo Nordio, Italian Minister of Justice. “Implementing the Convention is also a way of protecting human rights. Protecting the human rights of our nations’ citizens also means criminalizing and prosecuting conduct that undermines those rights,” he further highlighted.
1 UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants
2 UNODC report “Abused and Neglected”