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Question 3 – another myth connected to smuggling is the one pertaining to its organisation. We hear of smugglers organised into cartels, networks or transnational groups, but also of small-scale operations. What does your work suggest, and what does that say about irregular migration?
Smuggling networks are loosely structured but rather highly differentiated organisations. There are the ‘big snakeheads’, the ‘bosses’ in each local smuggling network but there is neither overall hierarchy nor any encompassing, transnational form of organisation or criminal network. Smuggling networks should rather be seen as many-headed and polycentric networks of criminals located in different countries. In each locality there are lower level intermediaries that are the recruiters. They are the ones, usually of the same nationality as the interested migrant, who make contact and put migrants in touch with the local smugglers to arrange a deal.
There are also a variety of small agents involved in the work of the smuggling network in each locality. These are not criminals and do not have migrant smuggling as their main economic activity. They usually do some other kind of job, including having a small shop, working in a factory or in the fields, but occasionally provide their services to smuggling networks to make some more money. These can be taxi drivers who carry people across the border for a fee of €50-€100, or people who rent accommodation out to house smuggled migrants.
Recruiters and guides link smuggling activities to local societies and populations in the transit countries. While the big bosses in the smuggling business are easy to categorise, these intermediary low-level agents are both victims and perpetrators of this criminal business. Indeed, in many cases customers become service providers themselves along their journeys, often to pay off the next step in their own migrations.