Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Maurizio Albahari

Maurizio Albahari
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?

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?

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?

There are two questions to be addressed here, analytically and politically: how and why does the pervasive conflation between smuggling and trafficking get reproduced and perpetuated? And is this conflation empirically grounded? Trafficking (whether as a perceived, rhetorical, or grounded experience) deprives migrants and refugees of any agency, strategically making room for the ‘sovereign salvation’ that I discuss extensively in my book Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border.

At the same time, smuggling can and does occasionally translate into trafficking, and this is possible because of the enormous discretion enjoyed by smugglers. More often though, we see that trafficking ventures – targeting Nigerian women, for example – rely on unauthorised routes and smuggling facilitators in the central Mediterranean. Does this turn smugglers into traffickers? We are equipped with many legal and analytical categories that facilitate our understanding and tackling of these issues and of the actors involved, and we should use them critically and discerningly.

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?

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.

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