Prosecution Without Persecution: Tackling Criminals, While Respecting Migrants' Rights

Various international newspapers reported in early July 2016 that police had arrested 23 people across Italy alleged to be part of a criminal network engaged in migrant smuggling.

The gang is suspected of smuggling thousands of people across the Mediterranean into Europe. Apart from possible deaths at sea caused by unsafe boats, those unable to pay the traffickers faced violence, abuse and some may have been murdered.

In related raids across Italy, police also seized more than half a million euros found in a perfume shop in Rome. According to the Italian prosecutor involved, profits were likely to be used in the illicit drug trade.

Is this case unique? Sadly not, although it does paint a telling picture of the harsh realities of migrant smuggling. People smuggling causes terrible suffering and even death, it generates huge profits used to fund other crimes, and it involves networks spanning many regions.

As this case shows catching the criminals is a priority, but not at the expense of the rights and dignity of all migrants and refugees. We need to prosecute the criminals while avoiding the persecution of the migrants.

Migrant lives, migrant rights, are paramount and the United Nations and others are entirely correct to pursue a path that does everything to uphold these essential rights.

This is why this week's high-level meeting on migrants and refugees in New York is so very important. We need to determine action that protects the fundamental freedoms of those on the move, and on their arrival, while also rolling up the criminal networks.

Held during the 71st session of the General Assembly, the meeting and its declaration can serve to sharpen our collective approach, aligning the orbits of international organizations, countries and civil society to work closely on behalf of migrants and refugees. It is a vital milestone on the way to agreeing a compact on migration in 2018.

We also need to admit the scale of this tragedy: it is the biggest movement of people since the Second World War.

Today, we are witnessing a world in motion. Millions of people seeking greater opportunities, escaping conflict and pushing across local horizons to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

Migrants can be found everywhere. Last year there were more than 244 million migrants and most move without incident. There are thought to be 65 million forcibly displaced people. These are vulnerable children, women and men who risk being pushed into the arms of heartless traffickers and exploiters.

If help is to arrive, fighting crime and promoting justice are indispensable. To do this, in line with the high level meeting's draft declaration, countries must vigorously battle against human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

Efforts should be governed by the protocols on these callous crimes under the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. So far, 156 countries have made human trafficking a criminal offence, but only 142 have agreed to do the same to halt migrant smuggling.

The problem lies in implementation. Countries need to respect their laws, and to be bold in their enforcement. As the Italian law enforcement agencies, who bring unparalleled experience from combating their own mafia, have recognised, there must be zero tolerance of impunity.

Every successful prosecution, every network disabled or trafficking route severed delivers a clear message that human trafficking and migrant smuggling are no longer the easy crimes of yesterday.

But for justice to prevail, and to apply to every child, woman and man, we must work ceaselessly together, share responsibility and acknowledge that we cannot stand on the side lines while humans suffer.

Just last year, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underscored that the international community needs to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people. No one must be left behind.

If they were, it risks our collective shame; especially at a time when we are being called to account to not just strengthen human rights and dignity, but also to empower and dispense justice for all.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.