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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?
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.
Question 2 – media, academic and policy circles suggest that human smuggling is a gateway into 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?
Research has shown the close relationship between people smuggling and trafficking in persons. Both phenomena relate to the exploitation of vulnerable populations for financial gain. However, it is important that media and public debates use the two terms precisely and not interchangeably. Not every case where a person engages the services of a people smuggler to facilitate a journey ends in trafficking. Similarly, many people who are trafficked have not sought to migrate (either in a regular or irregular fashion) but were looking for work or educational opportunities when they found themselves victims of traffickers. In such scenarios they are unwittingly bought and sold as a commodity either into the sex industry or work in slave-like conditions in factories, farms and other work environments where they are hidden from the general population (see for example the special issue of Anti-Trafficking Review guest edited by Nicola Piper and Marie Segrave).
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?
My research has shown that while large and well-organised cartels with largely invisible ‘Mr. Bigs’ are part of the people smuggling trade, many irregular migrants engage people they know and trust through family and community networks. Informal networks circulate information among migrants and stories of successful journeys strengthen trust in much smaller operations, including those that assist family and community members to cross borders without remuneration. Policies of states as well as regional agreements tend to throw a blanket over the whole spectrum of operations, often resulting in the smaller operators facing prosecution while the ‘Mr Bigs’ evade detection. Regional cooperation between states is an important aspect of working toward safer travel routes for migrants as well as the long-term political engagement on the root causes of irregular migration.
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