learning pages / Themes and topics

5.7 : Smuggling.

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.

Author_Zsuzsanna Fodor, Kibera, Kenya, 2018

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.

Against smuggling.

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.

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5.1 : Migration as a global phenomenon.

Migration is not a new phenomenon: people have been on the move since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, the history of humanity is a history of migration – some have even argued that movement is our natural state. Migration has always been an essential part of our adaptation to environmental stress, social upheaval and other challenges. The same is true today, even though it has now become global in scale.

5.2 : What is migration?

Simply put, migration is human movement from one place to another. It may involve a single individual or an entire community, internal resettlement within a country or a journey spanning multiple continents, forced flight from the threat of violence or a voluntary search for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, in many cases it can involve a mixture of patterns and motivations: for instance, migrants may have to flee very real dangers to themselves and their families, while at the same time actively plan for a better life elsewhere. Migration has a variety of facets and there are plenty of reasons – some even seemingly contradictory – why people decide to leave or stay.

5.3 : Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees.

'Migrant' is an overarching term for anyone (with the exception of tourists) who moves from one country to another for a significant period of time. A refugee is a person who flees from conflict, persecution of a natural disaster and seeks sanctuary in another country. (In many situations of insecurity, many or even most of those forced to move may in fact remain within their country: these internally displaced people, also called IDPs, rarely receive the same amount of attention in international media, despite often facing considerable challenges). An economic migrant is a person who moves in search of education, employment and other opportunities outside his or her country. Asylum-seekers are people who have applied for asylum in another country. Finally, stateless people are those who have either been deprived of or were born without citizenship.

5.4 : Transnationals.

Technologies have not only enabled people to move across the world far more easily than before, but also to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’.

5.5 : Migration and development.

Migration is often closely linked to processes related to development. There is no single definition of development, but in broad terms it can be understood as the potential for individuals and communities within a society to access services, employment and other opportunities on an equitable basis. If people do not have a chance to develop their potential, if they are excluded from participating in development, they might decide to move.

5.6 : Migration and minorities.

A minority may be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population but also in some cases larger in number, but in a non-dominant position. Minorities usually possess certain ethnic, religious, linguistic and other characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population. Due to their marginalized position within society, they are vulnerable to discrimination, and are unable to secure an equal share of development opportunities. This all makes these communities more exposed to various challenges that they may attempt to resolve by deciding to move.

5.8 : Fortress Europe.

Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.

5.9 : Misinterpreted facts on migration.

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. And the media are part of it. Sometimes they build their narratives around migration on pure myths or speculation. At other times, however, they may reply on more subtle distortions and misconceptions: these may be, strictly speaking, factually correct but presented or interpreted out of context or misleadingly.

5.10 : Migration causes.

Migration is typically caused by a variety of factors, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’. People might decide to move because of a range of factors, be it employment, security, opportunities, education, even love, unavailable to them in their home country and ‘pulling’ them elsewhere. On the other hand, there can be compelling drivers of displacement such as conflict, persecution, natural disasters and other immediate threats, that push them to migrate. In this post we focus on the latter – push factors related to forced migration.

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