Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Bodean Hedwards

Bodean Hedwards
26 March 2016


Provided by author

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?

Research into irregular migration across the Tibet-Nepal border counters dominant stereotypes of people smugglers by undermining notions of exploitation and vulnerability associated with the migrant-smuggler relationship. This is based on three key features of their migration:

  1. The high levels of agency required by Tibetans to navigate combined physical and socio-political barriers present at this border site is inconsistent with the perception of the ‘exploited or vulnerable migrant’. By accepting that irregular migrants can and do make sense of the structural limitations associated with border crossings by establishing routines to navigate them, we can resituate the power dynamic between the migrant and smuggler into the hands of the migrants.

  2. Building on the above contention, the role of the smuggler is premised on migrant protection and ultimately social acceptance. In light of the narrative around the relationship between Tibetans and their ‘guides’, I resist seeing people smugglers as “single-handedly responsible for deaths of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers”, as Weber and Pickering suggest in their book Globalisation and Borders: Deaths at the Global Frontier. The migrants I spoke with understood and respected the protectionist role of their ‘guides’ in navigating the Himalayan mountain range, with many indicating that the journey would be impossible without them.

  3. Finally, access to a guide was often arranged in support of Tibetans attempting the flee Tibet, occasionally at no cost. The pervasive understanding of human rights abuses inside Tibet has manifested into a network of guides dedicated to ensuring the survival of Tibetans. Without generalising, the operation of support networks suggest that facilitating irregular migration might actually be reflective of a culturally expected nationalism, both in Tibet and in exiled communities.

By shifting our focus away from notions of exploitation and vulnerability, the structures underpinning the policy responses to irregular migration both in Tibet and globally begin to dissolve, providing a space to better understand the social acceptance and motives for smuggling – particularly in the global south.

Question 2 – media, academic and policy circles suggest that human smuggling is a gateway human trafficking. Many times both terms are used interchangeably. Does your work provide any insight into these phenomena and what does that say about migration?

There were absolutely no indicators of smuggling transpiring into a case of human trafficking in my research into Tibetan irregular migration. However, it would be amiss to suggest that there is no relationship between these two issues, particularly when the associated policy responses have resulted in the criminalisation of irregular migration of refugees and asylum seekers globally.

An example of this is the policy response to the southeast Asian migrant crisis in 2015. The discovery of mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants on the Thai border arguably points to an example of smuggling-cum-trafficking. The Thai government’s reaction to this was to implement a hard-line anti-trafficking response, resulting in increased securitisation of their land borders through the expansion of policing and border control mechanisms. The regional response also focused on the anti-trafficking features of the crisis, with many nations reluctant to directly address the issues that caused migrants to seek out people smugglers in the first place.

The result was an almost textbook example of crime displacement, with refugees seeking significantly more dangerous routes across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in search of protection, often into the hands of exploitative people smugglers and people trafficking networks. Despite calls to address the root causes of the people smuggling, the conflation of smuggling and trafficking in policy responses has meant that the causes remain unaddressed. The criminal justice approach typical of anti-trafficking interventions has led to short-term responses that have left Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants subject to detention, repatriation and exposure to the same human rights abuses from which they originally fled. This is not to undermine the complexity of the situation, particularly the impact of the complex political situation facing many of the governments involved, however it does speak clearly to the influence of the policy context on the outcomes of irregular migrants.

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?

The guides that facilitated Tibetan irregular migration to Nepal were friends and/or family members in Nepal, or even just acquaintances from the same province. Yes, it was organised to the extent that there was a complex network of people that supported different stages of the border crossing, however there is no suggestion that there were links to transnational and/or organised crime groups of any kind on this border site.

However, this is not to say that these links do not exist, and the incidence of Tibetans being smuggled into the US warrants further attention. While this migration corridor is beyond the scope of my own work, other research suggests that there is a highly organised network that facilitates irregular migrants from various Chinese provinces and autonomous regions to Hong Kong, through to South America, and eventually to Mexico where they are then smuggled into the US. The growing population of Tibetans in the US suggest that Tibetans form part of those leaving China, and that there is a network present along this corridor. While the nature and operation of that network remains largely unknown, it reiterates the truly global nature and constantly expanding routes of irregular migration.

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