Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: is human smuggling the province of organised crime?

The level of professionalisation in human smuggling, according to our panelists, depends on the particular stage of the smuggling process and the sophistication of the border controls to be overcome.

29 March 2016

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

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?

Anna Triandafyllidou


Provided by author

Anna Triandafyllidou is a full professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, Italy.

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.

Shahram Khosravi

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


Provided by author

One foreseeable consequence of harsher border control has been the increasing danger and cost of human migration. To circumvent the most controlled border sections, smuggling routes have been relocated to more inaccessible and dangerous areas. Likewise modern biometric passports have made human ‘smuggling’ by air almost impossible and have pushed migrants into risky journeys by sea. Compared with the 1980s I see a huge difference in the informal migration brokerage. The ‘smugglers’ I knew then were a far cry from the ones I hear about today.

It seems that harsher border control has resulted in more sophisticated human smuggling operations. Current global human smuggling requires more information, transnational connections, and expertise than before. In the 1980s the brokers who forged passports, bribed officers at airports, or instructed migrants through their journeys were ‘amateurs’, often migrants themselves, and not rich or ‘criminal’ at all. What I have seen is a correlation between increasing militarisation of borders and escalation in the level of violence in human smuggling.

We should remember that the role of ‘smugglers’ has been changing. Sometimes there are no ‘smugglers’ at all involved in border crossing, like in the recent case of migrants traveling on foot today throughout Europe. Furthermore, if the Council of the European Union succeeds in equating ‘human smuggling’ with ‘trafficking in persons’, and thereby criminalises humanitarian assistance, then everyone who welcomes, shelters, and helps travellers without papers can be accused of smuggling and trafficking.

Rebecca Galemba


Provided by author

Rebecca Galemba is an assistant professor (starting Fall 2016) of international development at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

The term ‘irregular migration’ cloaks in bureaucratic jargon what are politicised judgments about preferred forms of movement and the people who desire to move. It neglects how states sort human beings into and out of categories of belonging based on arbitrarily imposed and policed national boundaries. As De Genova (2004) writes of the legal production of Mexican illegality, shifting legal categories and their uneven application directly produce irregular/regular migrants and the moral judgments attached to them, rather than anything inherent about a particular movement or person moving.

State regulations and policing patterns alter the forms of smuggling, redistribute risks and rewards, and make smuggling and smugglers more dangerous, expensive, and violent. At the Mexico-Guatemala border, residents used to provide rides to Central American migrants, which they described as forms of providing assistance. But as Mexico militarised under a US-led security agenda, smuggling increasingly shifted into the hands of sophisticated smugglers, ‘cartels,’ and gangs – those with the physical and monetary means to corrupt, evade, bully, or merge with state policing forces and officials. Yet policy makers continue to myopically focus on the smugglers and cartels. They ignore the political-economic conditions, which they helped create, that caused this shift to a new type of smuggler. The criminal smuggler narrative fails to account for how states and escalating policing and criminalisation produce their own nemeses – the criminal smuggler and the illegal migrant – while also conjuring up the mirror image: the corrupt and criminal state.

Nassim Majidi


Provided by author

Nassim is an Associate Doctor at Sciences Po’s CERI, as well as the co-founder of the think tank Samuel Hall where she specialises in field-based research on migration and displacement in central/south Asia and east Africa.

A multi-stage smuggling process spans internal and international borders: a ‘local’ smuggler from any given province of Afghanistan will create a link with another smuggler on the Afghan side of the border, who will then ‘pass on’ the migrants to another smuggler on the Iranian side. Many of the smugglers are prior migrants and returnees themselves: unable to benefit from their other skills, they use their migration experiences as assets. In the focus groups I led in Kabul in 2012 with taxi drivers calling themselves “travel agents”, over half of them had migrated to Europe and returned, and all of them had migrated to Iran and Pakistan at the very least. Even if their deportation or return experience dissuaded them from trying again, they became multiplying factors of migration upon their return: instead of leaving on their own, they contribute to groups of 10, 20, or 30 Afghans being shown the path to migration.

The sense of community is more present than the sense of ‘cartel’ in Afghanistan: the choice of a smuggler starts in the province of origin, up to the village of origin. Smugglers work with migrants who they know (and whose families they can locate), while migrants work with smugglers they can trust. A community link serves as a guarantee for both sides. The organisation is then led by phone or SMS, with few smugglers travelling with the actual migrants. They will remain responsible for them and for introducing them to connections of theirs at border points and beyond borders. Rather than a transnational close-knit network, it is a referral network in the voice of many Afghans interviewed. Its relatively ‘loose’ nature means that migrants can be disappointed in the service or find themselves having to do part of the journey on their own.

In locations like Calais, the organisation then closely resembles a cartel. Fancy cars driving in the ‘jungle’ show that there is a hierarchy between the smugglers at the top and the smugglers in the field, those who provide orders and means, and those who implement those orders. Migrants distinguish between different types of smugglers: the “Mercedes Benz smugglers”, describing those at the head of the smuggling pyramid, collecting most dividends from the irregular passage to the UK; and “those who live among us” and who are the day-to-day focal points who advise on the best passage. The latter are often very hard to differentiate from the migrants, as they share similar profiles, backgrounds and histories that got them to Calais in the first place. The former are the heads of transnational businesses, reportedly having a foot in the UK and a foot in France, and making rare physical appearances in Calais.

The story of smuggling is definitely not the same from start to finish. The faces of smugglers change and the experiences that migrants have change with them. There are those who prey on migrants as their victims, others who believe they are providing a life-saving service. The reality is somewhere in the middle, but they do provide a service than legal frameworks do not provide.

Maurizio Albahari


Provided by author

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

I have found evidence of both small-scale and transnational organisations. In general, smuggling, and especially maritime smuggling, is not an activity a single person can improvise. It presupposes knowledge of coastal territory, seascape, and weather patterns; of local police and other relevant institutional actors; a certain social capital, including the ability to recruit potential clients; to guarantee that the means of transportation are ‘safe’; and that the journey will actually take place. Smuggling also demands readily available cash, for example to pay for boats, fuel, middlemen, food, and so forth. All of this requires more than one person, and so we can certainly speak of more or less structured networks. Over the last two decades of trans-Mediterranean smuggling, one can certainly refer to networks with important Albanian, Libyan, Turkish, and Kurdish components.

Are these also transnational networks? Not necessarily; and if so to different degrees, and around very pragmatic objectives. For example, some of the fishing boats that smugglers use in Libya arrive from neighbouring Tunisia. Crews are often multinational, as are the people in their charge. Some of the smuggling leaders operating in Libya (at least until recently) have declared a variety of national backgrounds – Italian prosecutors, for example, have identified an Eritrean-led network. The case of huge cargo ships taking Syrian refugees from Turkey to southern Italy toward the end of 2014 also points to the existence of organisations that know how and where to buy such large vessels, have got funds to purchase and staff them, and are able to recruit and ‘manage’ a large number of clients. None of this excludes the continuing existence of small-scale operations, for example when individual fishermen in Libya knowingly sell their boats to improvised would-be smugglers looking for a quick profit. 

Smuggling enterprises are therefore extremely diverse, and operate at different scales. The war against smuggling on the Mediterranean – rhetorically, diplomatically, and militarily over the last two decades – needs to be complemented by a larger analysis of the demand for unauthorised transport, as well as of the many grey areas that allow smuggling to proliferate in response to changing structural constraints and always new ‘business’ opportunities.

Jason Danforth


Provided by author

Jason Danforth is masters student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

My research addresses this issue explicitly, and I found no evidence of large-scale, mafia-esque organisations. The reason for this is likely the extremely dynamic condition of the Syrian war. While small operators are able to tap into networks of connections (finding drivers, recruiters, financiers, material suppliers, etc.), it does not appear that the type of organisations associated with trafficking have attempted to involve themselves in human smuggling.

Smugglers in Syria have all but stopped crossing the borders themselves now that they are so heavily patrolled. Instead they act as facilitators, bringing refugees within close proximity of the crossing and providing them with the means to complete the journey (i.e. inflatable dinghies for the crossing from Turkey to Greece, or directing migrants towards the camps at the Jordanian border and notifying the army that their clients are not combatants). In fact, despite the media attention paid to the sea crossings between North Africa and Italy, or Turkey and Greece – a crossing which weighs heavily on the minds of the refugees as well – it is likely that Syria’s intra-state boundaries are far more dangerous. Crossing from, for example, territories controlled by the Syrian Free Army into those of ISIS or those of the Assad regime requires intimate and up-to-date information reliant on a flexible network of local operators.

Ultimately, the current migration crisis is defined by instability and its adaptation to new circumstances, be they victories and defeats on the battle grounds of Syria; the influx of commodities such as rubber boats and life jackets; the policy decisions of international governments; or even the presence of operators as seemingly innocuous as volunteer workers (it is reasonable to speculate that the presence of NGOs on the northern shore of Lesvos shifted the entire operation of Turkish smugglers north to the ports of Behram/Assos). These radical shifts in politics and territory favour small, opportunistic operators over larger, better structured, and better defined criminal organisations.

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