Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Communities of smugglers and the smuggled

Changing country outside of legal pathways relies on trust and community support, yet the ties that bind become more tenuous the farther a migrant is from home.

Nassim Majidi
8 April 2016

Afghans make their way through flood water in Kabul, Afghanistan in April 2016. Massoud Hossaini/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Somali and Afghan migrants have for some time been among the top nationalities of asylum seekers arriving in Europe. They are coming from countries where the post-conflict label has lost its meaning, and has given way to continued or renewed conflict. They share the lack of legal migration pathways to Europe: their only chance at making it to Europe is to be smuggled out of their country.

“When you think of leaving, it becomes like a sickness, an obsession. If someone says tonight ‘I need to go to Europe’, that person has to go and will be helped by the community to go. Right in your neighbourhood, introductions are made. The smuggler I had was a friend, I trusted him”. These words – from a Somali man recently returned from Norway to Mogadishu – echo the voices of migrants interviewed in Afghanistan and show how quickly the migration project can turn from aspiration into action.

In both countries, the smuggler is from the community and introduced by the community. Through time, the smuggler’s role has evolved to using technology and phone-based applications, transnational networks and informal funds transfer (IFT) systems, like Dahabshiil in Somalia and the Hawala system in Afghanistan. IFT operators say, “they know well the smugglers, they know us, so the money can be transferred even a phone call away from Norway to Somalia”. Local smugglers are facilitators of migration. Those feared by the migrants are the ‘other’ smugglers in Greece, Italy, and further in Europe, whom migrants do not know and do not trust. The social organisation of smuggling’s strength resides in the community at the point of origin, but has its weakness in the diversity of actors, cultures and languages along the way.

Much has been written on smuggling from an organised crime perspective. Yet smuggling is more than a profit-seeking criminal activity that involves crossing borders illegally. It is a practice that is rooted in communities of origin. The more rooted the practice, the stronger the connections to local smugglers, who are often known directly or personally by relatives and friends of migrants. Those ties represent an opportunity to leave, a source of protection, a “passport” for a better life, in the words of migrants themselves. The individuals behind the migration – from family members, to smugglers and money agents – are those who support migrants.

The choice of the initial smuggler is carefully made, yet the migration journey may not be fully planned through the end. The smuggler is chosen, money arrangements are made with Hawaladars and Dahabshiil agents. But to what specific end? Migrants do not necessarily know where they go to. The smuggler may choose the end point, direct them and bring them to a sought-after destination.

Through their journey, the smugglers’ profile evolves. In foreign lands and away from their own communities, migrants find themselves facing surprises and marching towards an unknown. The unknown ‘helper’, the unknown ‘predator’ and the smuggler can wear different hats: the ‘right’ smuggler chosen initially will not be the same smuggler throughout the journey. That implies protection risks and a lack of guarantees: while the migration journey was planned on the basis of trust and guarantees – trust in the local smuggler, trust in an informal money transfer system – the trust fades away the further the migrant is from home.

Many still make it – the service provider must complete the journey successfully to receive full payment. Yet others do not – women and unaccompanied minors are among those cited as most often failing to make the journey. At a time where Afghanistan’s unaccompanied child migrants top the list of underage arrivals in Europe – 24,000 Afghan unaccompanied minors arrived in Sweden in 2015 alone – the relationship between smugglers and migrants should come under greater scrutiny. Risks will not deter migrants’ decision to leave. And as long as smugglers are present, and the root causes of conflict are present, Afghans and Somalis will leave.

The wilful blindness of states


Somalian refugee women. Frank Keillor/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

States continue to think in terms of demand and supply, of push and pull factors, of criminality and profit feeding irregular migration. This outlook on smuggling needs to be updated. The angle changes in a context where beliefs and relationships are the foundation of migration decisions. Analysing the strength of ties and the dynamics of trust and guarantees moves us from more mainstream approaches, which focus on the causal and economic logic of smuggling, to critically reflecting on the psychological, aspirational, and relational dimensions deeply rooted in communities and in the minds of conflict-ridden populations. This can help change common analytical grids on smuggling.

Undoing the myth of the ‘human smuggling network’ to understand the smuggler-migrant relationship is important and has become a growing demand among critical scholars. There is a transnational element to smuggling, naturally, but not in the sense of a vast, well-organised network; rather in the sense that its actors cross borders and space. Smuggling is a succession of travel routes, border crossings and staged payments, but it is also a human process; it is a succession of profiles that leaves an element of uncertainty.

Smugglers are essential to Afghan and Somali migrants. As one Somali migrant said, “without smugglers we cannot go anywhere. They are like our passports, which you must have in order to travel. When I reached Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I met with my smuggler. He was a man with good character, he helped me catch a flight from Addis Ababa to Oslo, but it took me one year, as I arrived in Norway in 2012.”

The journey brings in another, fourth actor: added to the migrant, the community, and the smuggler are the informal funds transfer agents who protect migrants by removing the insecurity of travelling with large sums of cash, by providing the trust that the money is safely guarded, and by allowing migrants and smugglers to agree to instalments, based on achievements and results. The most important ones are the systems of Hawala in Afghanistan and Dahabshiil in Somalia. They are not illegal, they are registered with the governments of the countries of origin, and they allow for rapid transfer of funds. In Afghanistan, they are private individuals with strong and vast networks of contacts that stretch across borders. The further these contacts go the more protected migrants are.

The power dynamics between different ethnicities, cultures, and genders mean that migrants become disconnected from their communities and enter the realm of new communities that expose them to risks during their journeys: whether unaccompanied minors, children, women or the elderly, migrants recount negative experiences of smuggling. The ‘other’, foreign smugglers are not, in this case, protectors, predators, or a necessary evil. They can be human rights violators who take advantage of migrants who are not fit for the journey; who lose their source of protection; and whose ties, with time and space, fade away.

The question then remains: how to keep the community close? The smuggling operations in Afghanistan and Somalia use SMS, Skype, Viber, Whatsapp, and other phone-based applications to ensure that journeys are well organised, to cross borders and to release payments along the way. Yet the same tools are not used to monitor the conditions of the journey. If relations are the basis of the migration project, if aspirations are turned into reality by the guarantees of and trust in smugglers at origin and transit, what is their role beyond the initial agreement and before reaching the final result?

The state of the knowledge on smuggling is built on an evidence base that is either moral, political, or empathetic; or an economic reading of cost-benefit analyses, service provision and deliverables. These analytical grids prevent a more nuanced approach. To better understand the phenomenon of smuggling, we may need to abandon a causal understanding based on rational choices of economic actors, and understand the contextual element that can bring in other factors, such as the socio-cultural representations of migration, the psychological motives of migration, and the relationships behind migration. With smuggling, the root cause lens is not sufficient – a horizontal, spatial, relational representation of migration is needed.

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