Home Human Rights Opening speech by President von der Leyen at the International Conference on a Global Alliance to Combat Smuggling

Opening speech by President von der Leyen at the International Conference on a Global Alliance to Combat Smuggling

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Ladies and gentlemen,

We are here today because we have all heard their stories. We heard the stories of survivors. Young men, crammed into the back of trucks across the desert, with no food, no air and only a few bottles of dirty water. Young women, mistreated repeatedly throughout the journey. We have heard the stories of victims of migrant smugglers. We have heard stories of smugglers getting rich off their victims. And there are many other stories that we will never know because they ended in tragedy in the desert sand or at the bottom of the sea. Today we are gathered here in Brussels, from different continents and from different backgrounds. But whether we represent countries of origin, transit or destination of migrants, we all share the same desire. We are here to fight this criminal trade, to put an end to this indescribable suffering. We are here to build a Global Alliance against human trafficking.

We all know how difficult this job can be. But progress is possible. And where we have managed to join forces, in Europe, with countries near and far and with international organizations, progress is already being made. In September I was on the island of Lampedusa, one of the gateways between Europe and Africa. I saw the unseaworthy boats provided by smugglers, causing the deaths of so many innocent people. I saw the dire situation of the migrants who survived this dangerous journey. I saw the incredible solidarity of local populations, as well as their the exhaustion of yet another crisis.

Since then, we have managed to improve the situation, thanks to hard work on a ten-point plan. We have joined forces with Italy, UN agencies and Tunisia. Crisis management is important but not sufficient. We must develop a systemic response that puts migrant smugglers out of business and prevents loss of life. This is the logic that underlies the anti-smuggling operational partnerships that we have established over these years. First of all, with our friends from the Western Balkans, who are not only neighbors but future members of our Union. And then with some key countries around our borders. For example with Morocco and Tunisia. But there are also opportunities for much broader global cooperation.

The criminal organizations that manage migrant smuggling are international in nature. They operate across borders, along the routes that lead from countries of origin to migrants’ final destinations. We must tackle every link in these criminal chains. Their activity is very often diversified, and half of the migrant smuggling networks are also involved in drug, firearms and human trafficking. Not only do they exploit human suffering, but they also pose a broader security threat. This is why we want to establish new bilateral partnerships and operational task forces, focusing on all the routes where this criminal trade takes place.

But we also need a Global Alliance, with common governance and shared goals. It must be global, not only in a geographical sense, but also in its scope. With a focus on prevention, response and legal alternatives to deadly smuggling routes. And this is the spirit that guided us in organizing this conference.

The first avenue we will work on is to prevent and dissuade people from entrusting their lives to smugglers. The best way to avoid violence and death along the way is to prevent the dangerous journey from taking place. This involves cooperation on border management and intelligence sharing. But also “soft” tools such as information campaigns and a new focus on what we call digital contraband. Today, most irregular crossings are announced on social media, organized on messaging apps and paid for by digital money transfer. And this can only be solved internationally, by working with Internet companies. So, together, we can stop people from putting their lives in the hands of ruthless criminals.

Second, we must be firm and united in our response to the crime of smuggling. We all need to put the right legislation in place. We need to get our law enforcement and prosecution services working together. We must seize assets used by criminals. We must shut down the international supply chains and financial flows of criminal groups. And we can only do it together. We all have something to learn and something to share.

Here in Europe, we are currently working to update our anti-smuggling legislation, which is 20 years old. We will update the definition of the crime of migrant smuggling, strengthen our sanctions and expand our jurisdictional reach. We also want to improve cooperation between Member States and our agencies by creating a single European center against migrant smuggling to coordinate activities and share information within Europol. We will set up operational working groups, including with partner countries, and Europol will deploy staff to strengthen the capacities of Member States on the ground. Smuggling networks are constantly evolving. The same goes for our response.

As we update our own legislation to prevent and combat migrant smuggling, we also want to intensify our cooperation with our international partners. And here the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has a central role to play. You are the guardians of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which entered into force 20 years ago in Palermo. Today, we want to support you even more, both to support signatories with legal and technical assistance and to bring more countries on board. Together we can ensure we all have the right tools to fight these criminal networks.

Finally, we need to offer more legal alternatives to people who want to make their fortune abroad. It is an interest that we all share. In Europe, labor and skills shortages have reached record levels. On other continents, millions of people are looking to work and learn. And we need to handle this in a way that is safe, humane and mutually beneficial. With job matching initiatives, such as the EU talent pool, recently proposed by the Commission. With circular routes, where people move, train and bring home their new expertise. We want people to travel and realize their dreams. But this mobility must be managed by the law and not by smugglers. This is why we are creating talent partnerships with Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan. And we can provide more opportunities for people to come to Europe legally.

This goes hand in hand with strengthening cooperation on the return of irregular migrants. These two must go hand in hand. The better we are in terms of legal migration, the more convincing we will be in preventing irregular migration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Most countries are countries of origin, transit and destination of migrants. We are all different, but we are all in this together. And we can all learn from each other. This conference should therefore not be a one-off event. We will create expert groups at the technical level and advance work on the three tracks of the Conference. We will then meet again in a year to take stock. This is the start of a common path. And that is why we propose to agree on a call to action, open to all who wish to join us in this mission. This is a call for all of us: EU institutions and agencies, national governments and authorities, international organizations and online platforms. We need to pull together if we want to be effective. With the Global Alliance, we can usher in a new era of cooperation and give better opportunities to millions of people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Throughout human history, people have always moved. But never before has the contraband trade been so profitable and so deadly. Human mobility is a reality. Migrant smuggling should not be. He can be defeated. It is a question of political will. And we can only succeed together.

Thank you all for being here and welcome to the International Conference on Combating Migrant Smuggling.

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