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Human smuggling: the tunnel underneath economic apartheid

American and European border policies defend economic inequality far more than national sovereignty or security.

My name is Sheldon Zhang, and I'm currently the chair of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell. I've been working on smuggling and trafficking issues on and off for about two decades. I wouldn't say I have tons of experience, but I certainly know enough to be dangerous in the field.

I think the main problem, or the main challenge that we face as researchers of human smuggling activities, remains our inability to influence the dominant narrative that has permeated throughout government policies, global policies, as well as in global development investments and resource deployments. These views on human smuggling are still very much influenced by the criminal justice narrative or framework. In other words, you have a criminal or group of criminals, who are taking advantage of vulnerable people who want to migrate, exploiting them ruthlessly, and treating their lives cavalierly or frivolously for profit.

Anti-smuggling money is not only ill-spent, but it accomplishes very little because the desire to migrate is neither generated nor sustained by human smuggling.

In reality it's far more complex. We're not denying that there are smugglers who are taking advantage of migrants. However, it's far more common to see that smugglers are very much part of the irregular migration. They are facilitators, who have the intent to make money, but are also providing much needed services to help reduce the uncertainty and risks that migrants will otherwise have to face.

I'm not here to promote or to somehow advocate for the smugglers, but I think people taking on the uncertainties and risks to migrate are driven by a lot of causes and factors. By venturing into foreign lands or territories, they are faced with many risks and uncertainties. A smuggler, to a great extent, can help smooth the transactions – for a fee, of course.

With governments around the world investing millions upon millions of dollars to fight these so-called human smuggling activities, I see that the money is not only ill-spent, but it accomplishes very little because the desire to migrate is neither generated nor sustained by human smuggling. Quite the contrary. Human smugglers help reduce uncertainties and risks. We've seen a lot of empirical work in the field that has painted a very different picture from the dominant narrative, and I hope that somehow that researchers can get together and perhaps figure out a better way to communicate that message to policymakers.

Neil Howard (oD): In your view, why is it that – aside from our inability to reach their ears with our work – policymakers seem to remain so impermeable to the data that does exist?

Sheldon: That's a very tough question. I think there are probably two primary factors. One is this very archaic, almost seventeenth century mindset of a nation state. For any government to claim the least amount of legitimacy they must maintain the concept of a state. In other words, a state can only be a state if there are boundaries. If there are borders. So, to prevent people from entering the country 'illegally', or through irregular channels, you have to construct a reality that views those activities as criminal. As long as you apply this criminal justice framework, you have to identify criminals, or the undesirable elements that threaten the statehood of any country. That mindset is deeply rooted in those who govern.

Secondly, I think it's probably a tradition that started with our knowledge on organised crime. Somehow, we view human smuggling as a collective, organised activity. Then, if we take on human smuggling or irregular migration as an organised crime, it becomes a lot easier to gravitate towards a black and white perspective – to take on a very simplistic view of it as either legal or illegal. To any law enforcement agency, it's much easier to operate on a black and white framework. It's easy to subject everything that you see as a criminal activity, and that makes enforcement somewhat easier to plan regardless of whether the impact or outcome is favourable or not.

Neil: So there's a fundamental problem of mentality that's helps generate this impermeability to research?

Sheldon: I think so. It is the impermeability or the unwillingness or inability to accept stories or narratives that contradict what the dominant narrative is. I mean, these law enforcement people – they're not dumb. They're in the field, I'm sure they've encountered stories that run counter to the dominant narrative. But I think that, in order to maintain their legitimacy and, for lack of a better word, the security of their jobs and their existence, they must continue that narrative.

Neil: So what can we do about this? We know that creating obstacles to migratory journeys creates and fuels the business of smuggling, and that the single most effective way to reduce smuggling is to make borders more permeable. In effect the message to policymakers is that any regulation is counterproductive. That said, the likelihood that policymakers will accept completely open borders is slim for the reasons you laid out earlier. So if you're not going to try and sell them open borders, what do you sell them? What's a better policy?

Sheldon: That idea – in order to solve or reduce or minimise the human misery we should just open the borders and let people flow naturally – also fundamentally challenges the concept of statehood, or nation-state. It's not an unthinkable idea. The European Union and the Schengen Agreement showed an example of this being possible. But, at a different level, you almost have to admit that it's not just a simple question of maintaining one's boundaries.

A painted metal mural attached to the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, Sonora. The mural is titled "Paseo de Humanidad" (Parade of Humanity) and was created by artists Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano. Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

At a deeper level, I think it's probably more an issue of economic apartheid. The concept has been around for some time, but has not been widely discussed. Racial apartheid has been abandoned, but economic apartheid remains strong. Unlike previous generations, who barred people from entering greater economic opportunities based on race, now we want to prevent people from a lesser economic status from coming to compete with us.

I think that's a fundamental issue, but very few people want to talk about this. It's a highly politically charged issue. But the bottom line is, 'why does the US build borders?' Because we don't want the Mexicans to come. If Germany were sitting next to the US, if the UK was sitting next to the US, I don't think it would have been an issue. It's like with Canada – the border for a very long time was largely symbolic. But we do want borders now that you have a sufficient number of people – among politicians as well as the public – who don't want that access to be provided to people of a lesser economic status. And hence economic apartheid continues.

About the authors

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

Sheldon Zhang is chair of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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