Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Jill Alpes

How does raising the costs of human smuggling make it more likely for migrants to fall into the hands of organised crime?

Jill Alpes
10 April 2017

What are the intended/unintended consequences of anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking policies?

Border restrictions create markets for border brokers.

Anti-smuggling policies are based on the assumption that border brokers create risks for migrants. Aspiring migrants who give money to border brokers, however, understand migration to be intrinsically risky. To minimise these risks, aspiring migrants from Cameroon ask two questions: does a border broker have powerful connections (often with state agents); and does a border broker have the genuine intention to enable a border crossing? Anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking policies, however, assume that border brokers are entirely separated from state actors and that relations between brokers and aspiring migrants are guided exclusively by rational and individualistic market principles.

Today, many West Africans see themselves de facto excluded from legal migration. As a result, aspiring migrants consider border brokers to be powerful men whose job it is to facilitate their journeys. Anti-smuggling policies force border brokers to seek out new and potentially more dangerous routes for travellers. These changes exacerbates people’s vulnerabilities.

Are border fortifications/restrictions a useful or counterproductive response to mass movements of people?

Media accounts create the impression of mass movements and politicians talk about a so-called ‘refugee crisis’. Yet, the eye-catching border crossings in the Mediterranean and at the US/Mexico borders are in fact exceptional phenomena. Migrants represent only 3% of the world population; 7-8% of all migrants are refugees and 86% of all refugees live in developing countries. Irregular border crossings for purposes of asylum applications or work are thus overall a marginal phenomenon. Most migrants cross borders legally.

Border restrictions can have unintended consequences. First, when family reunification and legal labour migration becomes inaccessible, people resort to border brokers to find other channels for mobility. In other words, border restrictions create markets for border brokers.

Second, restrictions tend to interrupt the free circulation of migrants and push migrants into permanent settlement. Returns and onward migration can instead be promoted by granting nationality or residence status. The work of Ilse van Liempt, for example, shows that Somalis started leaving the Netherlands once they had been granted residence permits.

Third, border restrictions force people in need of protection to risk their lives in their legitimate quest for refuge. Border policies need to allow for safe and legal access to asylum, and at present a good first step would be to make humanitarian visas available for Syrians.

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