Over a million migrants and refugees fleeing war, poverty and violence in the Middle East, Asia and Africa crossed into Europe by land, air and sea in 2015, setting off the largest refugee crisis in Europe since WWII.
Even higher numbers have poured into neighbouring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in the case of people fleeing Iraq and Syria.
As the European Union and the international community are debating how they can best tackle the crisis, little attention has been given to one of the chief drivers of instability and facilitators of mass migration: corruption.
Corruption fuels conflict
Although corruption alone is not a direct reason why refugees flee their countries, research shows it is often a chief contributor to the overall violence and instability forcing people to run for their physical and psychological safety. Widespread corruption undermines the legitimacy and stability of a government especially if it fails to meet the needs of its people.
Most armed conflicts, including the one in Syria where half of the refugees come from, began as a civilian uprising against corrupt autocratic governments. Overall, five of the 10 most corrupt countries also rank among the 10 least peaceful places in the world.
Research also shows that corruption prolongs armed conflict and violence and weakens peace-building efforts. Corruption facilitates cross-border smuggling of weapons and insurgents as well as the flow of monies from contraband activities that fuels wars.
Corruption facilitates illegal migration
The trafficking of human beings as well as refugee smuggling, which has become a multi-billion dollar business, thrives on corruption. Bribery occurs at almost every stage of people smuggling from the start to the final destination.
Smugglers often bribe national and foreign officials to issue fraudulent passports and visas as well as border control and immigration officers to turn a blind eye to refugees as they pass.
The lack of safe passage for refugees have forced them to pay as high as US$3,000 per person to reach Europe. Such corrupt and criminal smuggling rings give refugees the opposite of what they seek, safety. Dodgy rubber dinghies, fake life vests, or captains who abandon their ships, have led to thousands of refugees tragically dying in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe.
What should be done
Fighting corruption is critical for mitigating refugee smuggling and ending the conflicts which are driving people to flee their homes. Corruption should be high on the EU’s agenda when it comes to tackling the refugee crisis.
Transit countries on the frontline of mass migration (Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, FYR of Macedonia, Morocco, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey) must ensure that proper anti-corruption standards, in line with international best practices, are upheld for border and police officials.
As these countries are already struggling through economic crisis and uncertainty, the added strain of the refugee crisis and potential aid money coming in carries additional corruption risks. Therefore, anti-corruption provisions must be adhered to, wherever extra financial assistance is granted, to ensure that this money is not wasted.
Humanitarian assistance aims to save lives and alleviate the suffering of people in times of crises but it does not mean that it is immune from corrupt abuse. In such humanitarian crises, the lack of transparency, clear rules and checks-and-balances can lead to a few individuals benefiting at the cost of the many. The misuses of food and shelter aid, sexual extortion and bribery are all challenges refugees face as they travel north. Transparency International has outlined a series of recommendations on how to tackle such forms of corruption in humanitarian operations.
All these efforts require international cooperation. The international community should look into the best ways to limit the access of corrupt and criminal smuggling groups to vulnerable refugees. There are several ways that this cooperation can take place, such as information gathering and data sharing across borders.
Instability, corruption and a lack of good governance is a major cause of why people choose to risk everything and travel to Europe in many countries across the world. Therefore, aid and development policies must address these issues in the long term. If we want to ensure that this crisis never happens again, tackling corruption must be counted among the policy solutions.
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