Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Good and evil: the role of smugglers in the migrant crisis [excerpt]

Since its inception in 2000, International Migrants Day has served as a platform to discuss human rights issues affecting migrants. This year, the UN is focusing on safe migration in a world on the move—opening up an international dialogue about how to ensure safe and systematic migration during times of instability. The migration system today is largely dependent on smugglers: as millions seek to escape violence and economic inequality, many become dependent on criminal networks to facilitate their transport. In the following excerpt from Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, and Savior, Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano shed light on the complicated—and often over-simplified—role that smugglers play in the migrant crisis.

Smugglers are often portrayed as exploitative, profit-driven criminals; the villains who prey on the most desperate among us. Yet, as this book will demonstrate, such facile depictions are not only incorrect, they are counterproductive. They reduce the complex narrative of human migration into simple dichotomies of good and evil, in turn fostering bad policies that put migrants at risk while at the same time empowering criminal organisations.

In many instances, those who are promoting these narratives are deliberately conflating human smuggling with the much less morally ambiguous activity of human trafficking, hoping to operationalize universal disapproval of human trafficking to gain support for policies that are really intended to stem unpalatable migrant and refugee flows. The most intellectually honest and useful way to think about migrant smugglers is to consider them dispassionately as service providers.

They are the supply to someone else’s demand, and, as outlined in the previous section, demand has never been higher. Though every migrant has different motives, and different smugglers have different business models, fundamentally, all migrant–smuggler relationships are ones in which the smuggler is assisting the migrant—albeit for profit and often with little regard for the well-being of the migrant—to bypass barriers.

A barrier can come in the form of a wall, a guarded border, or dangerous territory where there is violent conflict, banditry, or even kidnappers who seek to abuse and extort migrants. Sometimes these barriers are natural or geographic, a desert that is hard to cross or a sea that is difficult to navigate. In other instances they are purely political, manifesting themselves in the form of stringent visa regimes or discriminatory policies.

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border. Image Credit: “Migrants in Hungary 2015 Aug 018” by Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, barriers can be cultural, in which migrants physically stand out from the local population, or in which for reasons pertaining to gender, age, or language the migrant feels unable to navigate a foreign culture without the help of a smuggler. And because there are so many different profiles of migrants and so many different types of barriers to overcome, there are a number of different smuggling models within the migrant-smuggling industry.

Smuggling service providers exist on a spectrum. At one end are individuals who see a one-off business opportunity and form ad hoc alliances with other criminal entrepreneurs in order to pool their skills and deliver smuggler services. At the opposite end are highly professional organized crime syndicates that specialize in moving everything from drugs, weapons, stolen goods, and people over borders undetected.

The more challenging the barrier to overcome, the more professional, specialized, and, arguably, criminal the smugglers will need to be in order to provide their services. In situations where borders are easy to cross, there are low barriers to entry into the smuggling market and the profile of the smuggler trends towards the criminal opportunist.

Where barriers are greater, there are fewer actors with the requisite skills to deliver smuggling services, which means that the smuggling market will consist of fewer individuals, and most often those already involved in organized crime.

It is far easier, for example, to find someone who can navigate a forty-five-minute sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands than it is to find a crew that can travel 2,000 kilometers in open sea from the tip of Indonesia to a landing point in Australia. Anyone who can afford a rubber dinghy and a cheap motor can get in on the former. The latter requires considerable expertise.

The same economic principles apply to the prices people must pay for smuggler services. In circumstances where borders are relatively easy to cross and there is competition between smugglers, prices are lower than in cases where the barriers are high and only a few actors can provide the services needed.

A recent report commissioned by the EU estimated that all of the more than a million irregular migrants who entered the EU illegally in 2015 used the services of a smuggler at some point in their journey.

For the many people of different nationalities coming to Europe, a smuggler may be required in order to escape from their home state; to transit through various countries undetected and unharmed; to traverse land or sea borders in order to reach the Schengen territories of Europe; to arrive at their preferred destination; or all of the above.

In other words, smugglers have offered millions of people opportunity, security, and assistance. They exist because, in the absence of safe and legal ways of seeking refuge and opportunity, their services are highly coveted. Smugglers may then go on to try and expand their markets through active recruitment of prospective clients, or lies and false promises, but rarely do they create a market out of nothing.

Smugglers exist, first and foremost, because in the world we have created, where necessity demands movement but few legal options are available, they are essential.

Featured image credit:  “Migrants in Hungary 2015 Aug 015” by Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jon

    Very one sided discussion. smugglers may be providing a service for some, but smugglers are also concerned with making a profit. They work to persuade individuals who would not otherwise do to move to another country by promising them permanent residence in exchange for thousands of dollars. This story is almost completely missed by the refugee advocates.

Comments are closed.