According to the UN definition smuggling
“is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident.” In principle, it implies a level of consent among those being smuggled – as opposed to those subjected to human trafficking, who are effectively captive to their traffickers. Once a migrant is smuggled through a border to their agreed destination, the relationship is usually over, while human trafficking generally involves the continued coercion of victims, often over a period of many years.
In reality, however, it is a thin line and the relationship between smugglers and their migrant ‘clients’ can turn coercive, deceptive or abusive, to the point where it may be classified as human trafficking. And many migrants in practice may never receive the service they paid for – the smuggler may simply vanish as soon as the money is in their hands or abandon migrants far from the agreed destination.
‘I was a smuggler’, says Moussa while speaking to a group of European journalists at the sandy coast of Senegal, the country in the most westernmost tip of Africa. But while this might come across to a Northern visitor as a candid confession, it could mean something different entirely to a local.
Moussa and other smugglers, most of them originally fishermen by trade, took their clients – very often fishermen, too – by large pirogues from the shore of Senegal and north around Mauritania, avoiding Moroccan waters, to Spain.
While journalists from the North might see a smuggler as only one step removed from human trafficking, our smuggler could easily see himself as a simple service provider, a facilitator of migration. Whose picture was correct? In fact, many of these smugglers felt forced to adopt this profession because of overfishing by EU trawlers along their coastline. They needed to find some way of drawing an income from their fishing boats.
To fully understand this phenomenon, we need to look at it from different perspectives. Some readers, for instance those from one of the new EU member states, might have their own experience of migration. Indeed, it is highly likely that since the early 1990s most will have either experienced themselves or know of family and friends who have spent some time working abroad: picking apples in Italy, babysitting in the UK or Switzerland, washing dishes in Germany. This is a good starting point to explore the issue.
Others born earlier may also have experienced working abroad without documents, or in some other limbo, on the margins of legal and illegal residency. They were irregular migrants.
Situations and contexts change, but the processes remain the same.
Why is this relevant? Because of all those parallels. Those jobs were often fixed by a person in one’s extended network who knew the environment in place – perhaps because s/he worked there before themselves. These services usually involved some fee for ‘arranging’.
But it also meant that this person, this facilitator of migration, often a friend or a friend of a friend and sometimes even a family member, was actually a smuggler by definition. Similar to Moussa from the introduction. A different person, in a different context, but a smuggler all the same.
And all that bluffing to border police while crossing borders, working without a permit as undocumented labour, living in a country without a registered address, was a form of irregular migration.
But have you ever thought of those people helping you or your relatives to find a job as smugglers? Probably not. And did you ever think about yourself or your relatives as irregular migrants? Probably not, either. We tend not to think of our compatriots working abroad as labour or economic migrants, even in cases where they have travelled irregularly and worked there without permit.
In summary, then, the relationship between smugglers and migrants can vary hugely – from mutually beneficial service provider-client relationship, to predatory and dangerous exploitation that can take on many elements of human trafficking. The point here is certainly not to excuse smuggling, but to put it into perspective, reframe the picture. To nudge you as journalists to use your global imagination and migration optic to look at the issue from various perspectives, to get the whole picture in all its complexity.
There is a lot of debate – amongst states, civil society and other groups – about the best policies to handle migration and refugees (see migration policies) But there is broad agreement that we should fight migrant smuggling.
It is generally viewed as unacceptable that anyone should profit from moving people illegally across borders. There is also public awareness of the danger posed to migrants by being transported in secret by criminal gangs.
However, there are many different approaches to counter-smuggling and many motivations behind them – and not all of them are honestly expressed. While the desire to prevent criminal organizations from profiting off of human misery is admirable, the measures to obstruct them are often primarily driven by the aim of preventing migration. The well-being of the migrants being smuggled, by contrast, may be a low priority: indeed, counter-smuggling strategies as currently practised in many EU countries can increase the risk migrants face.
Historically, governments have been mainly concerned with minimizing the number of people illegally living or working in their countries. In recent years, however, many countries including the EU, US or Australia are now more concerned about how they can avoid their obligations to take in more people as refugees. Critics say this has actually helped perpetuate the smuggling industry by closing off any opportunities for those fleeing persecution to apply for asylum in a regular fashion.
At the same time, the counter-smuggling measures in place are often legally objectionable and imprecise. Sometimes authorities, for instance, take a ‘softer’ approach – public awareness campaigns warning prospective migrants about the dangers of being smuggled. Such approaches are ineffective, failing to take into account the considerable pressures which displace people in the first place, and the context in which they assess risks and make plans.
Essentially, many counter-smuggling measures are designed to help countries avoid their legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention – and they pay no attention to the desperate situations which drive so many people to migrate and to place their trust in smugglers.