Raising awareness and educating the public about the causes and consequences of migrant smuggling is an important part of any strategy to prevent and combat this phenomenon effectively.  If designed and executed properly, awareness campaigns about the causes and consequences of migrant smuggling have the potential to prevent ‘the higher human cost resulting from unscrupulous methods and motives of migrant smugglers’ as well as reducing or avoiding ‘the high cost and risk of launching transnational investigations and prosecutions.’ [1]  But concerns arise when information and awareness campaigns are used to deter smuggled migrants, many of whom are fleeing persecution, torture, discrimination, war, poverty, and other humanitarian crises.

In international law, the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air supplementing theConvention against Transnational Organised Crime[2]—the principal and most universal instrument to combat migrant smuggling—calls for a holistic response to migrant smuggling, including prevention through the use of anti-migrant smuggling information campaigns.  Article 15 of the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol explicitly advocates public awareness raising and cooperation between States Parties to prevent smuggling of migrants:

  1. Each State Party shall take measures to ensure that it provides or strengthens information programs to increase public awareness of the fact that the conduct set forth in article 6 of this Protocol is a criminal activity frequently perpetrated by organized criminal groups for profit and that it poses serious risks to the migrants concerned.
  2. In accordance with article 31 of the Convention, States Parties shall cooperate in the field of public information for the purpose of preventing potential migrants from falling victim to organized criminal groups.

Article 15(2) makes specific reference to Article 31 of the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which, inter alia, recommends the dissemination of information through the mass media and the promotion of public participation in preventing and combating all forms of organised crime.[3]

To facilitate the implementation of Article 15, UNODC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—the ‘guardian’ of the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol[4]—has developed a plethora of guidelines, ‘toolkits’, and other best practice material to assist States Parties to design appropriate awareness and education measures whilst also respecting the rights of smuggled migrants and protection obligations stemming from other international treaties, most notably theConvention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.[5]

In an effort to ‘stem the flow’ of smuggled migrants and ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’,[6] the Australian Government has instigated several awareness and information campaigns designed to prevent smuggled migrants from making the expensive and often dangerous journey to Australia with the help of migrant smugglers.  Since the topic of migrant smuggling—or people smuggling as it is locally referred to—first made headlines and became a major political issue in 1999, successive Australian Governments from both sides of politics have launched campaigns designed to stop migrant smuggling.  By and large, the campaigns were aimed at would-be migrants and sought to warn them about the costs and dangers associated with migrant smuggling, and the harsh conditions and consequences they may face en route and on arrival in Australia.  The effect of these campaigns, if any, remains questionable as the number of smuggled migrants arriving in Australia has increased significantly over the past 14 years, and continues to rise today.

A research paper published by the Migrant Smuggling Working Group in May 2013 explores the prevention of migrant smuggling through the use of awareness campaigns in Australia.  It outlines and examines five campaigns run between 1999 and 2013 and assesses the design, message, implementation and evaluation of these campaigns against the requirements of international law and best practice guidelines.  The purpose of this research paper is to highlight strengths and weaknesses of past and present awareness campaigns and to pave the way for more informed campaigning in the future in order to prevent the smuggling of migrants more effectively, respect the rights of smuggled migrants, and address the root causes of migrant smuggling.

To view the full research paper, click here [pdf].