Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The call to become a smuggler

Human smugglers are widely portrayed as marketeers, yet the smuggler-migrant relationship is often coloured by moral, social, and even religious obligations. Heightened border policing has the potential to undermine all that.

Luigi Achilli
5 April 2016

Syrian Kurdish refugees walk to Turkey in 2014. EC-ECHO/Flickr (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd).

Politicians, border authorities, and journalists usually portray the smuggler as a cruel and reckless criminal driven exclusively by profit. Unsurprisingly, smugglers perceive themselves differently. I’ve spent much of the past year speaking with them as part of my work at the European University Institute, and in conversations they represented themselves as service providers who met a need that cannot be satisfied through legal channels. They showed clear awareness that they were part of a highly unstable and dangerous market, and they used that precarity to justify taking high fees from their clients. They did not perceive their activities as being immoral. Instead, they claimed to operate a moral economy by helping people to escape situations of misery or danger.

Remarkably, accounts of the callousness of smugglers are also often dismissed by migrants: those very people who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean. The large majority of the migrants I spoke with were quite vocal in their criticism of the EU’s collective failure to honour its promises by taking in those arriving at Europe's borders.

Of course, stories and rumours about migrants deceived, exploited, and mistreated by smugglers were also relatively common. Even the smugglers that I interviewed conceded as much: “smugglers are not all good”, many told me. This contradiction begs the question: is the smuggler a saviour or a murderer?

It is obviously impossible to draw a homogeneous profile of ‘the smuggler’. However, if we accept the statement that “smugglers are not all good”, it would perhaps be more fruitful to stop investigating why smuggling is so ‘evil’, and instead ask what makes smuggling human beings a morally acceptable practice. An answer of this kind – I argue – should take into account local notions of morality and the broader socio-political context in which the act of smuggling takes place.

Smugglers on the Aegean coast

Most of the people I interviewed – smugglers and migrants – in Turkey and Greece used the term muharrib to refer to the ‘human smuggler’. The word, which is derived from the Arabic verb ‘to smuggle’, does not have an inherently negative connotation in itself; it simply refers to the act of sneaking something in undetected for either positive or negative intents. Against this backdrop, the smuggling of human beings was not necessarily judged negatively by my informants. They pointed out to me that smuggling is not necessarily about profit and that material gain, for the muharrib, is not always the driving factor.

Smugglers and migrants concurred that ‘just’ smuggling was possible. It entailed a range of practices encompassing honesty and moral conduct. For smugglers, this included restricting their profit margins, using good-quality boats, and displaying civilised and refined manners with their customers. Along these same lines, they regarded as immoral any misconduct relating to the quality of services or the treatment of customers and, in general, any attempt to become shamelessly rich off of migrants.

Most importantly, my findings highlight the centrality of ethics in the lives of both migrants and smugglers as they leave their homes and prepare for the journey to Europe. Among my Syrian informants, ethical values were intertwined with past ideological and political affiliations and played a role in framing the experience of those smuggling and being smuggled. This was clearly exemplified by Abu Jihad and his group.

The story of Abu Jihad

Abu Jihad (not his real name) was known among Syrian refugees for being a good person. The first time I met Abu Jihad was in Elgar, a small town on the Aegean coast of Turkey. The man was sitting at a table sipping a cup of tea while frantically texting on his two phones. Along with him, a bunch of boys and young men sat, chatting and joking. Abu Jihad introduced them to me as his ‘team’. They were all Syrians like him. While Abu Jihad was indeed a smuggler when I first met him, he was a refugee too.

Like many others, Abu Jihad had fled Syria in 2012 with the plan to get to Italy by way of Libya. However, his journey abruptly stopped in Egypt when local authorities detained him for a few months before sending him to Lebanon. He tried again. The second time he took the Balkan route: Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Yet again, he did not make it. While waiting on the western shores of Turkey to be smuggled into Europe, Abu Jihad had a revelation. “I could not stay there any longer watching my fellow country-mates suffering in Syria or being exploited by smugglers and locals in Turkey”, he told me. “I decided to do something for them”.

Abu Jihad found a Turkish associate to set up the business – the man’s personal contacts and knowledge of the country were crucial to get the project up and running. Today, around 30 people work more or less steadily for the organisation.

This is how Abu Jihad became a smuggler, “an ethical one”, according to him. Indeed, he decided to help his fellow country-mates reach whichever destination they preferred in Europe. He was aware that the high profits derived from his new line of work made his claim to the moral high ground suspect, to say the least, and thus chose to tackle the dilemma head on. “Money is only part of the story. I became a muharrib because I really want to help my brothers; I know what it feels to be in their situation!” he said. “I help my fellow (Syrian refugees) cross the sea … I charge them much less than any other smuggling group but I give them a far better service: safer boats and better treatment”. As a smuggled migrant himself, he knew the basics of the job, and as a relatively well-off person, he had the financial means to set up his business enterprise. The rest was easy. “People come to me because they know it is better with me”.

Job openings for muhtarameen

However, it was not enough to be fair and reasonable for transactions to be considered trustworthy and respectable. The migrants and smugglers that I encountered in Elgar judged other smuggling groups by the presence or absence of decency and humanity. The importance of being a “decent person” – Syrians used the word muhtaram (literally, an honest and respectable human being) – was, interestingly, most often stressed by smugglers themselves. As one of the Abu Jihad’s associates put it:

There are lot of smugglers in Turkey. Already in Elgar there are half a dozen groups. Not all of them are good. Some of them have no good manners with people (the customers). They forgot that these people are human beings like them. When you do this job, you should remember that you are dealing with human beings. If you profit from them it is not good. If you scare them it is not good. Patience is very important. Sometimes I meet elderly people that, when I shake their hands, I can feel them trembling with fear. I reassure them. I call them ‘hajj’ (an Arabic term of respect for an elderly person). After a while, their mood changes completely; they feel at ease, they are not anymore afraid … each of my new (employees) take a good-manners course before starting to work with people. To do this job you need to be muhtaram.

Among the people with whom I spoke, being muhtaram was not an abstract virtue; rather, the notion acquired moral substance in interaction with people. It implied more than behaving properly and being good mannered, as human smuggling drew social and moral significance from the broader moral and political universe that smugglers and migrants shared. The majority saw no contradiction between smuggling and being pious, and many were persuaded that facilitating irregular migration was a political and religious duty. Again, Abu Jihad’s story is a case in point.

Most of Abu Jihad’s customers came from his village of origin in Syria. His associates were also from this place. During the first two years following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the village became the scene of fierce armed clashes between the government forces and the Free Syrian Army. The place was subsequently occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2013 – which still controls a large part of the area. The intense fighting between the various factions over the years deprived the village of basic commodities and the possibility of stocking supplies from nearby areas. The resulting hunger, disease, and death forced many to leave. For Abu Jihad, helping his fellow villagers escape this situation was a duty, and the man was certain his piety had influenced his decision to smuggle people.

We are different from many other smuggling groups. There are smugglers who don’t care about their customers. For us it is our duty to help them. These people are not only my customers: they are my brothers. I help them because they are on the wrong side of the world … we all come from the same place. I help them escape the madness of Daesh (ISIL) … this is jihad.

Do you know the difference between mine and Daesh’s jihad? Daesh is only a bunch of narrow-minded people who don’t understand that jihad has little to do with killing people. The real jihad is different, it means to strive to become a better person. This is what I do when I help my people. This is the real jihad.

Abu Jihad’s comment is important in many ways. At one level, it problematises a popularised understanding of jihad as physical fighting in the name of Islam. His use of the term refers instead to the Islamic duty of assisting others, an idea that comes with neither militaristic connotations nor a drive to fight the so-called infidels. Even more striking is the fact that he used the term in connection with recent political events, specifically to explain his stance against a political group that is widely known for their claims of jihad. Most important, perhaps, is Abu Jihad’s desire to point out a correspondence between politics, Islam, and the smuggling of human beings – to show how different forms of smuggling are located along a scale of morality.

The many faces of smuggling

Undoubtedly, Abu Jihad and the particular pattern of human smuggling that I encountered should not distract us from other, more cruel forms. Furthermore, we cannot discount the possibility that Abu Jihad and his associates may have portrayed themselves in an overly flattering light, one which minimised some motives as well as the more unsavoury aspects of their business. This could certainly be true. However, to do so would not be sufficient to explain the continued strength of the bond between smugglers and their clients.

Despite the growing number of dramatic stories surrounding smuggling facilitators, the demand of smugglers’ services is on the rise. The continued resilience of smuggling networks, despite numerous attempts to shut them down, serves as a constant reminder that migrants are not only determined to flee their countries, but that social ties between smugglers and their customers do exist.

An effective eradication of these organisations without addressing the causes of clandestine migration may thus prove difficult, for smuggling networks are deeply enmeshed within migratory flows. Most importantly, the militarisation of border control could not just be ineffective. It could also trigger vicious dynamics. Researchers have demonstrated that the increase of control policies has accompanied a growing tendency among these groups to specialise and to increase their capacity to deliver certain services to would-be migrants in a systematic and standardised manner. In this context, the intensification of border control may lead to the disappearance of “chains of trust”, paving the way for a more depersonalised way of business where profit entirely replaces ethical and moral considerations.

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