Since the beginning of 2017, 100,000 refugees have made their way to European mainland by crossing on boats, in search of a new, safe life. This is in addition to the 1 million that have reached Europe since 2015. Throughout the process, thousands have lost their lives at sea. Recent research by Verisk Maplecroft has highlighted that refugees are now becoming at a significant risk of modern slavery, as the risk of modern slavery has risen in nearly three quarters of the 28 member states of the European Union over the last year alone. The report has highlighted that there is a great risk of migrants being turned into slaves for various industries, including agriculture and construction.
The countries that are posing the highest risk are Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria, all key entry points for refugees.
The entities to hold accountable for the illegal slavery phenomenon are two – firstly, the smugglers who are operating a business risking peoples lives and dreams by promising refugees a better life across the sea for obscene amounts of money. The second are the local governments for failing to provide provisions for people once they reach the land, and for failing to identify and prosecute the smugglers who bring the refugees to mainland Europe in the first place.
Before migrants and refugees are turned into slaves, they are smuggled into Europe. This has created an entire industry of people smugglers, an industry that is reportedly worth $5 billion due to the price that each person pays to be smuggled across the sea. This industry is certainly not financed by those who are incredible wealthy and are able to afford to get across the sea.
The people being smuggled are vulnerable to exploitation on both sides of the sea: prior to reaching Europe, they are exploited in order to pay for their ‘ticket’ across the sea. Once they are in Europe, there is a clear threat for them to fall into the trap of modern slavery.
Are aid agencies complicit in this false promise of a future?
Due to the high-risk environment of poorly built and fundamentally unsafe boats, there are numerous large ships and rescue vessels operated by independent NGOs that also roam the seas, particularly the stretch between Italy and North-West Africa.
The people being smuggled are vulnerable to exploitation on both sides of the sea: prior to reaching Europe, they are exploited in order to pay for their ‘ticket’ across the sea. Once they are in Europe, there is a clear threat for them to fall into the trap of modern slavery.Yara al-Wazir
The question that raises itself: would people have the confidence to cross the seas on dingy boats, unless they knew there was a large vessel half-way through the ocean that would save them when their boat starts to fail? To an extent, although aid agencies have the best intentions, their constant presence in the seas and their quick-response has created a false sense of relief and support for people who dare to cross the sea, which is inadvertently aiding the whole smuggling industry. The presence of boats funded by aid-agencies is dealing with the back-end of the issue at hand: people dying on dingy boats whilst being smuggled. Instead, the focus must be on stopping the people from getting on these boats in the first place, and instead offering support, help, and dignity in aiding the true refugees in crossing the sea borders between Africa and Europe.
A Band-Aid will not end the core problem: smugglers are turning refugees into slaves
Even before refugees reach mainland Europe, there are numerous reports that they are subject to various forms of exploitation that is borderline sexual slavery, including the sexual slavery of children from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
Every day, Europe is waking up to what is arguably the biggest human crisis in the region: refugees escaping warzones only to find themselves in a state of further despair, death, or even worse: exploitation.
Europe, and the governments of what is former colonial Europe need to wake up and recognize the crisis that countries in North-west Africa and the Middle East have been left with devastation. Ignoring the post-colonial devastation is selfish.
The individuals that are profiteering from this crisis must be stopped. Just as millions of dollars and large amounts of effort are put into fighting the drug smugglers, similar efforts must be put into fighting human smugglers. Action must be taken at the front-end of the crisis: the smuggling enterprises, including the false-façade of ‘legal’ businesses that they operate behind.
Frontex policies that include building higher fences and more patrols that return migrants to their port of last departure cannot feature in solving the crisis. Instead, policy-makers must recognize and accept that the policies of exclusion can no longer work. Until significant efforts are made, there will continue to be a risk of refugees turning into slaves.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir