Taking part in a panel on European border control at the LSE last autumn, I found myself saying that the behaviour of people smugglers over the last twenty years or more was as worrying as the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers using their services. Cecilia Malmström, then the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, nodded vigorously. She described the mechanics of getting people in danger across frontiers in the last century as an innocent process, a ‘cottage industry’. I remember hearing a similar remark about the older coyotes from an NGO worker on the US-Mexican border in 2011.

I haven’t met a people smuggler for 16 years: my evidence that they treat their charges more harshly than they used to comes from sources we can all access – mainly accounts in the press about migrants and asylum seekers who have suffered at their hands, and briefings from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The rise of exploitation makes it hard to object to politicians rounding on people smugglers. But when the EU foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, speaks of disrupting their ‘business model’, it’s a reminder that a business can’t function effectively without robust demand and confidence in the provider (I’m trying here not to sound ‘hostile to business’). The ruthlessness of providers in the Mediterranean is a result of burgeoning demand. And the white-knuckle nature of the provision has to do with lack of competition. Whatever marginal differences exist between rival suppliers, irregular entry is becoming a monopoly gateway for people who have to get to safety.

Maximising choices for these customers means creating a competitive offer. If the EU and individual member states really mean to stop the boats, they must set up complex, costly processing arrangements that allow people a safe path into Europe. For now the boats are the logical consumer option: you buy a way to freedom and hope the investment is good when you reach your destination. States make a paltry offer by comparison: the blinds at the ticket-office are down most of the day and when they’re not the staff are instructed to be unhelpful.

A serious alternative would mean deploying personnel from sender and receiver countries along the borders of the EU, accompanied by EU officials, mediating agents (NGOs) and asylum lawyers. The same arrangement would apply in a forward presence along the African and Levantine shores of the Mediterranean: the principle here is to negotiate consensual routes to safety for the millions of people on the move since the Bush-Blair military intervention in 2003. Some of these advance-guard EU initiatives already exist. In West Africa they’re designed to stop migrants in their tracks. But if it’s boats that trouble us, these extra-territorial EU outposts should become proper processing points, with a rotating staff of independent actors – humanitarian NGOs, rights activists and lawyers – as well as UNHCR representatives and monitors from the International Organisation for Migration.

For the asylum seeker, or the undocumented migrant, this alternative way in would not be risk-free. An applicant from Turkey or North Africa might well be refused entry at the first point of demand. Just look at the figures. The UK received around 24,000 asylum applications in 2013, less than half the number in France and Sweden, and a quarter of Germany’s. In the same year the Home Office reached a decision on 17,000 cases, of which 6500 were awarded, with many refusals going to appeal. Last year in the EU as a whole, there were more than 625,000 asylum claims– a fifth lodged by Syrians – and 160,000 decisions in favour (that’s first instance decisions only; appeals tend to add another 20,000). These are long odds against asylum seekers, and they would be reproduced in any forward arrangement the EU could agree.

Pause here. The dismay about ‘influx’ has led to confusion about what’s on the table. Call them proposals one and two. Proposal one, mooted last month at an emergency EU summit, was that Europe should ‘resettle’ 5000 refugees (the European Commission wanted a higher figure of 20,000, and it looks like they may have it back on the table). Resettlement means taking in refugees who never got to the EU Common Border in the first place: some of the four million Syrians, for instance, in camps in the Middle East and Turkey. This is the policy that could reduce the demand for boats, even if the intakes would be trifling: about one resettled refugee per 25,000 EU inhabitants. Proposal two is another thing again. It envisages relocating ‘mass influx’ – i.e. people who’ve already reached the EU – more fairly among member states based on criteria such as GDP and population size. Both plans have run into trouble. It doesn’t matter whether desperate people are already in Italy and Greece or further afield. Leading adversaries are Viktor Orbán in Budapest and Theresa May in Whitehall.

The likelihood is that proposals one and two will remain under discussion, going nowhere, as countries like Britain wrestle with the (wholly different) problem of EU migrants moving freely and legitimately between member states. EU forward positions in Africa, meanwhile, will be run as Frontex quarantine camps, to keep out migrants and asylum seekers, and the smugglers will still have everything to play for. The struggle is twofold: there is the enemy within and the enemy at the gates. Enter proposal three, for the use of force against non-EU migrants.

We can see roughly how it goes: Plans for alternative ‘business models’ (redistribution, resettlement) fail to win a consensus; the boats keep coming; the EU is sanctioned by the UN Security Council to take military action against the smugglers; a long and expensive security exercise begins along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, as migrants and asylum seekers reroute on the advice of middle men (more extortion, more humiliation): their ‘choices’ now are overland routes from the east or even a new assault along the African Atlantic, where numbers have flatlined since Frontex cut successful security deals in Mauritania and Senegal a few years ago.

Proposal three, the notion that we should destroy the fishing boats and let a later generation – in Europe, Africa and the Middle East – live with the consequences, is gaining momentum. It’s a high-stakes policy. Despite Mogherini’s assurances, it doesn’t rule out the deployment of EU or Nato military on North African soil. As usual, we can’t tell if we’re reaching for violence in order to live in the manner to which we’re accustomed, or to save people from misery and disaster. Our confusion may not matter. Behind governments that quarrel with proposals one and two is a huge auxiliary force of voters who no longer accept newcomers, whether they’re oligarchs or destitute people from the regions we’ve driven to frenzy and desolation. Proposal three looks like the only offer.