Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: are smugglers parasites or service providers?

In the first of three questions, human smuggling experts share their views on what and who actually constitutes a human smuggler. The answer depends greatly on where they operate.

26 March 2016

Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Kos from Turkey in September 2015. Christopher Jahn(IFRC)/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Question 1 – the rhetoric surrounding smugglers is packed with graphic images of violence and exploitation. What does your research indicate? Are smugglers really parasites profiting on human desperation, or, at the end of the day, do they provide a service to those on the move?  How do we move the conversation forward?

Antje Missbach

Antje Missbach is a senior research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne and author of Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia.


Provided by author

My recent research looks at the Indonesian fishermen transporting mostly Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. It shows that the men convicted for people smuggling under Indonesian law do not resemble the stereotypical human smuggler found in the public media or in populist political debates. Instead of being either greedy, predatory, brutal monsters or altruistic, inerrant saints, most sentenced offenders have very little formal education and often live on both the geographic and socio-political margins of society. Retelling their ‘career paths’ reveals that most became involved in people smuggling due to ongoing precariousness in their lives. Sick children and spouses, insurmountable indebtedness, exploitation by peers, and few prospects to escape the daily misery of their lives made them take up very risky job offers. Against their better judgement they accepted job offers, sometimes arranged through those whom they owed money.

Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi is an associate professor of social anthropology at Stockholm University.


Provided by author

Several years ago Amir Heidari, a well-known migration broker in the Middle East and Europe, told me that the first ‘human smuggler’ in history was Moses, who led his people escaping Egypt across the Red Sea. History is full of examples of such heroes who save people from oppression and death. Helping Jews out of Nazi occupied territory is a recent example. Another is the rescuing of enslaved people of African descent in the US in the nineteenth century, a historical episode known as the Underground Railroad.

Heidari proudly told me that he was his own migration board. “I work for those who are declined visas and passports,” he said. “I work for anyone who has no passport, and with pleasure help them go wherever they want”. By saying this he refers to the unjust distribution of the right of mobility. While those with a surplus of mobility rights cross borders gloriously as an honourable act of globalism and cosmopolitanism, those without papers have to do it in an informal way. For me, the so-called ‘smugglers’ are the consequence of unequal rights to mobility and are necessary actors as far this inequality exists.

Using the single term ‘smuggler’ for all actors who work as informal migration brokers is misleading. The people categorised as ‘human smugglers’ are not a homogenous group. Alongside the criminal ones, there are local people, such as nomads living in border regions for whom border crossing has become crucial to their economic and social life. They might facilitate an ‘illegal’ border crossing for a low price.

Sarnata Reynolds

Sarnata Reynolds is an international human rights attorney who is an expert on refugee and migrant issues, statelessness, and human rights violations among displaced populations.


Provided by author

My experience researching and documenting the profiles of smugglers is directly related to my work on forced displacement. We know there are historical migratory routes between points in separate nations that reflect a demand for workers in one country, and a population capable of taking on the work in another, among other factors. Mexico and the United States have had this symbiotic relationship for generations, and it can also be seen in southeast Asia between Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia, and in the movement of workers from west Africa to north Africa and on to Europe.

While the demand for workers who take up dangerous, difficult jobs has not declined in much of the world, access to visa programmes that facilitate their safe and lawful passage has become ever more difficult. Without a lawful alternative, individuals and families in need of work have resorted to irregular migration. At the same time, the criminalisation of migration throughout the world has resulted in the narrowing of routes between two points, often funnelling migrants into the most dangerous passages, and a growing reliance on ‘experts’ who can facilitate safe passage. This phenomenon is the inevitable consequence of national and international laws that politicise and restrict freedom of movement regardless of the pressing economic, social, and political dynamics of individuals, families, and industries.

Without a doubt, some smugglers engage in terribly bad acts and take advantage of those who rely on them, including rape, torture, kidnapping, and other types of abuse. Others are part of impoverished and persecuted communities, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, which may financially benefit by arranging boat passages, but also provide a vital lifeline to Rohingya people. Some smugglers may do both.

Migrants often have multiple motivations for moving and the same can be said of those who take up smuggling tasks. National and international policies and responses that cast all smugglers as bloodthirsty villains distort this reality and are unlikely to lead to the dismantling of smuggling routes. Yet, these same crackdowns may further undermine the rights of people on the move. For example, Thailand’s crackdown on smuggling and trafficking in 2015 resulted in the abandonment of thousands of Rohingya people at sea. They were left at sea because the smugglers and traffickers could not meet them at traditional disembarkation points. This tragedy was foreseeable but not planned for, and the smuggling continues.

Milena Belloni

Milena Belloni is a sociologist working on forced migration from Eritrea.


Provided by author

It is hard to generalise on what kind of persons smugglers are. During my research along the migration corridor which links Eritrea and Europe between 2012 and 2014 — the Eritrean refugees I interviewed sometimes told stories of cruel smugglers who locked them up for long time in crowded stores with limited food and water while waiting for them to pay the journey’s price. Other times refugees told me about honest and respectable smugglers who managed to facilitate their safe border-crossing.

These contradictory accounts may not only be the result of contingencies and different smugglers’ personalities. They also may be due to the many different actors involved in facilitating irregular migration from Eritrea. For example, there are guides accompanying fugitives from Eritrean border areas to neighbouring countries; drivers who transport refugees from camps to cities and through the desert to Libya; middlemen, who organise the journeys and put migrants in contact with different service providers; other agents who provide the space to keep migrants during the journey. These actors have different expertise and forms to craft relations with the smuggled migrants. For example, while the success of a middleman is based on his reputation, enforcers in Libya are meant to collect payment and this may entail violence and coercion. In order to draw a more realistic image of smugglers, it is thus important to avoid generalisation and to work on building a fine-grain understanding of the many different roles and the internal organisation of smuggling.

Maurizio Albahari

Maurizio Albahari is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.


Provided by author

Smugglers provide a service and meet a demand, but might do so in ways that are abusive and exploitative. Some help to create the demand that their services meet: international migration presupposes the availability of transportation, whether authorised or not, and smugglers are known to advertise their services, for example by word of mouth and through social networks. In a variety of settings, including the Libyan coast or between Syria and its neighbouring countries, displaced persons in vulnerable positions find themselves enduring the exploitative demands of their smugglers. They may see this as the only viable coping strategy, especially when faced with dire local prospects, lack of access to legal and humanitarian protection, and absence of authorised travel options toward a safe haven. These persons might be subjected to psychological abuse, be pressured to use sex as a form of payment, or be physically coerced into obeying the orders of smugglers – from the imposition of additional fees, to where and how long to wait for a boat, to who gets to board and when, where to sit, what to carry, when to jump into the water.

It is fundamental to acknowledge the discretion enjoyed by smugglers. At the same time, institutional and media discourses routinely conflate improvised boat drivers and seasoned smugglers, smugglers and traffickers, and small smuggling groups with larger smuggling networks. Moreover, they take it for granted that smugglers somehow coerce people into their own international journey. Analytically, it is instead fundamental to challenge tropes of victimhood, so that relevant decision makers can start grappling with the evidence of migrants’ and refugees’ need or desire to trespass international boundaries. The anti-smuggling rhetoric appears to be very selective and resistant to disproof – stereotypical, in short. Perhaps, what we should ask first is not whether smugglers are more or less violent and exploitative, but rather to what degree is this rhetoric genuinely misinformed? And to what degree does it serve as a convenient distraction, for both citizens and decision makers?

Claudia Tazreiter

Claudia Tazreiter is an associate professor of sociology at the University of New South Wales.


Provided by author

My research indicates a large gap between the media and political rhetoric on people smugglers and the reality of mobility for irregular migrants. The phenomenon of people smuggling is not new and nor are the labels attached to this ‘trade’. On one end of the spectrum, smugglers do extort large sums of money from desperate and vulnerable populations who have no other recourse for flight from a country of origin and often life-threatening circumstances. But on the other end of the spectrum, irregular migrants talk about their ‘agent’ as a person who provides a service they require.

This ‘agent’ is likely to be a person they or a family member knows personally, or a member of a community, village or ethnic group with which they have ties. An ‘agent’ may well have used a people smuggler to facilitate their own journey in the past, and who now facilitates the journeys of others – not always with a monetary motive. Some of these ‘small smugglers’ make no profit from their activities, with all the money going to pay for the means of travel and the bribes of corrupt officials.

The debate ought to focus more squarely on the origin of the problem and the complex reasons why people seek out and use the services of people smugglers. Such a focus on the root causes of the desperation that forces people to put their lives and the lives of their families at risk will illuminate a very different side of the debate, namely on the localised forms of political violence as well as the global political economy that drive the conditions that create irregular migration.

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