A comprehensive report to the United Nations busts common myths about people smuggling, according to its Queensland-based author.The Migrant Smuggling in Asia: Current Trends and Related Challenges report lays out the state of play in the illegal trade.The University of Queensland’s Migrant Smuggling Working Group produced it for the UN Office on
Drugs and Crime Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Group coordinator Dr Andreas Schloenhardt said it showed “many myths and common perceptions about the smuggling of migrants” were not supported by evidence.
The report found migrants used smugglers “when accessing legal channels for migration proves unsuccessful or remains difficult”.
Professor Schloenhardt, who has previously criticised the Australian government’s boat turn-back policy for shifting the problem to other countries, said “the only meaningful way to control the problem was to create more legal avenues for migration”.
“We can’t control and stop the demand and the migration to that,” he said.
“What we can do perhaps is manage it and the only way to really ensure that these very dangerous and exploitative means of migration aren’t used, is to provide some realistic avenue of migration.”
The UQ criminal law professor said the report had challenged popular perceptions.
Migrants are flooding to Australia in disproportionate numbers
In 2013 the Australian government reported that 300 boats with more than 20,500 asylum seekers on board arrived. None were recorded in 2014.
But even at the height of these arrivals the report found the majority of smuggling happened between Asian countries and Professor Schloenhardt said the numbers reaching Australian shores were “insignificantly small”.
“If we talk about 10 to 20,000 irregular arrivals in Australia, compare that to a country like Pakistan that might have four and a half million known irregular migrants and probably many more that are undocumented,” he said.
“And probably several hundreds of thousands of workers in places like Malaysia and Thailand, just to put this a little bit in perspective.”
People smuggling rings are big, “mafia-style” operations
Despite regular talk of wanting to “smash the people smugglers’ business model”, Professor Schloenhardt’s report found smuggling of migrants was mostly carried out by “loosely connected networks”, generally operating without “formal, transnational hierarchies”.
“This idea of people smugglers’ business model, or the mafia-style organisation of this trade that generates billions of dollars is not really sustainable,” he said.
“By and large this is organised in very simplistic and ad hoc ways, also at the local level rather than transnational style.
“By and large people move from one country to another and take whatever offer they can get to move further onwards.”
People smugglers are all callous criminals
According to the Australian Border deaths database, 1970 asylum seekers have died at sea since records began in January 2000.
But the report found there was no evidence to suggest the average smuggler was a “routine criminal”.
In fact, it found many smugglers had been clandestinely transported through themselves and often did not regard themselves as migrant smugglers.
Professor Schloenhardt said there was no basis for the image of the “Al Capone-style smuggler”.
“I would just be cautious labelling them in that way because their circumstances are very complex and criminal as their activity may be, we need to understand how did they come to that and what drove them into this sort of situation,” he said.
“In turn then (we need to) ask about how do we criminalise this, what kind of penalties are adequate towards that and also what do we do to prevent that?”
Many asylum seekers are really “economic refugees”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have both stated they believe a growing number of asylum seekers coming to Australia were actually “economic refugees”.
This one is a bit less clear-cut because the report did find family reunification or escaping persecution were motivating factors but “the majority of migrants are in pursuit of better economic opportunities”.
But Professor Schloenhardt said this wasn’t the case in Australia.
“Over 90 per cent of the people that come here, even within our very tough domestic laws, are recognised as refugees,” he said.
“That is very different to Europe, where you have recognition rates of about 30-35 per cent.
“So Australia is really the target, first and foremost by people who are genuinely in fear of persecution someplace else.”
Politicians have previously called for tougher assessments for asylum seeker claims, which could bring down the amount of successful applicants, with ASIO security assessments strengthened earlier this year.
Professor Schloenhardt will present his research findings to a conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York later this month.