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Human smugglers roundtable: Nassim Majidi & Saagarika Dadu-Brown

We need policies that take seriously the complexity of migrant-smuggler relationships.

What are the intended/unintended consequences of anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking policies?

Anti-smuggling policies implemented in countries of transit often fail to take into account the complex nature between a smuggler and a migrant, a central theme in last year’s roundtable. Samuel Hall’s research on smuggling of migrants to Canada, which uses an ecosystem approach, shows that smugglers act as both a support system and as those that exploit migrants, especially in transit. It also demonstrates that migrants in transit are usually too scared to approach law enforcement officials for help, as the latter were seen as key perpetrators of exploitative practices. Migrants also expressed a desire to ‘not have any trouble with the law’.

Most anti-smuggling policies appear to be narrow and one sided, and do not factor in the abuse perpetrated by law enforcement officials.

These findings challenge traditional distinctions of the role of smugglers and law enforcement. Without accounting for this holistic understanding of migrant smuggler dynamics in transit locations, most anti-smuggling policies appear to be narrow and one sided. Most do not factor in the abuse perpetrated by law enforcement officials. They also do not sufficiently take into account the nexus between migration and corruption. Mentioned in a number of interviews conducted with smuggled migrants in the Mediterranean, corruption in offices meant to support safe and legal migration channels were an important factor in driving people towards smuggling.

Lastly, we’ve observed a trend in the feminisation of irregular migration – not only an increase in absolute terms of the movement of women using irregular means, but also in the agency and choices that women are increasingly making to use smugglers to reunite with family in countries like Canada. The fact that the Syrian crises have displaced families en masse means that a number of women are forced to choose between either living in transit countries like Turkey that offer little protection or use smugglers to reach Canada. 

Their vulnerabilities and exposure to exploitation is only increased when anti-smuggling policies a) focus narrowly on criminalising the smuggler and the practise without a thorough understanding of the dynamics; and b) provide no checks on law enforcement officials.

Are border fortifications/restrictions a useful or counterproductive response to mass movements of people?

The irregular crossing of borders is often the only way for migrants to seek protection, and the practice is perpetuated by restrictive policies and practices, particularly in countries of transit. Border restrictions increase migrant vulnerabilities in three ways, identified in our forthcoming research on migrant smuggling to Canada. 

First, they push migrants to take bigger risks, change their destination, or partially take over their own logistics (i.e. rather than entrusting themselves to smugglers for the duration of their journey, they may pay to cross a certain border or to have a certain document forged, but do the rest on their own). 

Border restrictions render mobile migrants involuntarily immobile.

Second, border fortifications leave migrants in a state of limbo – and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse – in transit settings. Borders were identified as the main spots where they felt the most vulnerable, confirmed through exploitative practices recorded by our research teams. Border restrictions render mobile migrants involuntarily immobile, in locations with no connections or support networks. As they have no intention to stay in a transit hub and are only there to catch the next leg of their journey, their time forced in transit increases their exposure to risks and vulnerabilities.

Third, they create and reinforce new migrant-smuggler relationships, for instance introducing migrants to opportunistic smugglers that will take advantage of a border closure or restriction to increase prices.

In transit, those interviewed reported that in hubs, including border areas and known locations with a strong migrant presence, NGOs were providing essential and psycho-social support to the migrants. With border restrictions come the need to enhance protection of migrants – where state restrictions may decrease protection, non-state actors can play an assistance role.

About the authors

Nassim is an Associate Doctor at Sciences Po’s CERI, as well as the Co-Founder of Samuel Hall where she heads the Migration Practice and specialises in field-based research on migration and displacement in Central/South Asia and East Africa.

Saagarika is a Senior Researcher at the Migration and Displacement Pillar at Samuel Hall, based in Istanbul, Turkey. She explores source and transit country perspectives in fragile countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, Lebanon, and Turkey. Her research areas include forced displacement and durable solutions, integration and irregular migration. Lately, she has been working on an IOM-funded project exploring protection concerns faced by migrants trying to get smuggled into Canada. She has a master's degree in South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford.


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