What the United Nations Should Do about People Smuggling. (UNconventional: A Point of View)

By Ruddock, Philip | UN Chronicle, June-August 2001 | Go to article overview

What the United Nations Should Do about People Smuggling. (UNconventional: A Point of View)


Ruddock, Philip, UN Chronicle


People smuggling (1) must first be recognized for what it is: a profitable and direct attack on a State's sovereign right to determine who may enter and remain in its territory. People smugglers frequently compound this core affront with abuse of the human rights and dignity of their customers, leading all too frequently to their death, making it an issue of not only political and criminal concern but also humanitarian.

When people smugglers transport asylum seekers, States face the additional complications arising from the migration-protection nexus. States must respond appropriately to the fact that any smuggled persons found to be refugees have usually left countries of first asylum and, therefore, relative safety (technically, "secondary movements" not flights from persecution). Such persons have frequently and deliberately bypassed further places of safety, in order to seek both a protection and a migration outcome in a chosen destination. Further, they must not only comb at smugglers but must also identify and respond to any protection needs.

States' resources are finite. Therefore, refugees who have been able to pay for their self-selected or smuggler-selected resettlement outcome will impact on a State's willingness and capacity to voluntarily resettle them. Those disadvantaged are refugees for whom resettlement has been determined to be the only appropriate solution by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is currently the case in Australia. (2)

A large part of the answer is for the United Nations and its agencies to work in partnership with States on a comprehensive, integrated approach that addresses the causes as well as the symptoms of people smuggling. Governments and international organizations need to work together because, acting alone, we will succeed only in pushing the problem to another part of the globe. Similarly, any approach that is purely control-oriented is bound to fail. Prevention must also be part of the strategy.

The most direct way in which the United Nations can help to combat people smuggling is through its aid and development activities. The root causes of irregular migration and people smuggling, such as endemic poverty, conflict and repression, can be addressed in the long term through poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, peacekeeping and reconciliation, institution-building and educational initiatives.

There is also a critical need for the United Nations and the international community to provide more support to countries hosting large refugee populations, such as Iran and Pakistan. Where there is a breakdown in the effective protection provided in these countries, people are more likely to have recourse to smugglers in an effort to find a more secure environment. Governments and the United Nations must work together to find durable solutions for these refugees.

Historically, a highly successful example of a comprehensive approach was seen in the action of UNHCR, in close partnership with the countries of South East Asia and the resettlement countries, in setting up the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indo-Chinese Refugees in 1989. Importantly, CPA saved lives by discouraging further clandestine and unsafe departures from Viet Nam and elsewhere. It was the cooperative nature of this arrangement that made it work.

It is also vital that the United Nations provides leadership--practical leadership in terms of operating in ways to support States, including by facilitating international cooperation, and intellectual leadership in proposing ideas and people smuggling are complex problems that require creative solutions. There is an increasing realization, for example, that refugee and people smuggling issues cannot be separated. UNHCR cannot carry out their protection work in a vacuum. They have to work with Governments to help in their fight against people smuggling and mobilize the international community, and that calls for effective leadership. …

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