Podcasts: Analysis

Smuggling or trafficking? For minors with few choices, the line is blurred

Exploitation is often one facet of children’s attempts to navigate an increasingly divided world

Luigi Achilli
30 November 2022, 6.30am

A 10-year-old labourer from Syria picking radishes on a Lebanese farm in 2018


Eva Parey/Alamy Stock Photo

Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

In September the news that two Syrian children, aged just one and two years old, had died of thirst aboard a boat heading to Italy sent waves of indignation across and outside Europe. The story was not, sadly, very unusual: across the globe, children are often the protagonists of gruesome tales that see cartels of traffickers and smugglers preying on their vulnerability.

These children are the victims of what scholars and pundits call ‘irregular migration’ – “movements that take place outside the regulatory norms of sending, transit, or receiving countries”, in the words of the UN’s International Organization for Migration. Outrage is an appropriate response to their mistreatment. But we should understand that children’s vulnerability often provides a justification for ever more intrusive and authoritarian border security and migration policies.

Is children’s irregular migration really only about exploitation and subordination? Or does human smuggling (and even trafficking) provide minors on the move with protection and opportunity for mobility?

I have wrestled with these questions for quite a while now. In an attempt to answer them, in 2017 I started ethnographic research on unaccompanied minors heading to Europe, mostly from Syria. I wanted to document what being smuggled means for the people at the centre of this drama. In the early stages of my research, however, I still did not understand how much exploitation and agency overlapped for my research participants. I found that it is not always easy to draw a neat line between smuggling and trafficking – which the United Nations defines as smuggling migrants against their will.

As my fieldwork unfolded, a more complex picture emerged. To begin with, I came to understand that smugglers also provide protection for migrants. Some of the smuggling groups that I encountered in Greece and Turkey, for example, took great care to establish and maintain trust with migrants by keeping their word, restricting their profit margins, using good-quality boats and even being well-mannered.

In the case of minors on the move, my informants reported how smugglers are chosen for being reliable guardians who care for the needs of the children and protect them against the risks of the journey. The migrant community would consider conduct deviating from these standards reprehensible and even immoral.

Yet we must not lapse into a romantic view of minors’ interactions with smuggling groups. It is no secret that violence and exploitation are deeply entrenched in human smuggling, and that slippage to trafficking is not so uncommon, especially when it involves minors.

When moving becomes a costly but urgent need, migrants might perceive exploitation as the only way forward

A striking example of this comes from Myriam – a 12-year-old girl and the breadwinner in her family. Like others before them, Myriam and her brothers arrived in Lebanon with a smuggler. Their parents entrusted their children to a smuggler with the promise to reach them in a couple of weeks. Myriam never heard back from her parents. When I met the children, they lived in an unfinished building with coarse, unpainted walls near an informal tented settlement in Lebanon, near the border with Syria. Her father had given them some money, which mostly went on paying the smuggler. To make ends meet, Myriam was working in a factory. Her already meagre salary of $8 a day was made even more miserable as $2 had to go to the shawish – the coordinator of the tented camp who hires people out to nearby farmers, auto repair shops and other employers. “The shawish gives some money to the muharrib [the smuggler] to take all who need money to him,” Myriam said.

Myriam’s experience of displacement consigns the girl to the category of ’trafficked child’. Whereas the relationship between migrants and smugglers normally ends when the journey is completed, human trafficking revolves around the exploitation of the person who is moving to a new place. It could be said that Myriam agreed to be exploited, but if she experienced coercion, that agreement is irrelevant – and the United Nations states that coercion includes “the abuse of a position of vulnerability”, even without the use of brute physical force. And yet, had the girl not been exploited, she and her brothers could have starved or, perhaps even worse, never managed to leave their war-ravaged country.

To be clear, this is not to say that the shawish and the smuggler were good Samaritans, but rather that, where exploitation occurs, this is often the result of migrants’ deprivation and irregularity rather than the precise intent of criminal individuals or groups.

Ethnographic research has amply demonstrated how the violence and abuse that minors on the move experience can hardly be disentangled from the increasingly restrictive migration policies that states impose. Most importantly, minors who are exploited may still have agency. Exploitation is often one facet – albeit dramatic – of their attempts to navigate an increasingly divided world.

When moving becomes a costly but urgent need, the boundaries between protection and exploitation blur, and migrants might perceive exploitation as the only way forward.

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Evidence from minors on the move shows that ‘victims’ can also consciously and willingly accept blatant exploitation to allow them to move and improve their quality of life. In 2016 alone, for example, over 20% of separated migrant children in Greece went missing within 24 hours of arriving in special reception facilities for minors. While media reports blamed trafficking organisations for the disappearance of Syrian minors, field research revealed that on many occasions minors had left protective custody voluntarily in order to journey through Europe with the help of smugglers.

In this context, more stringent border policies and practices are doomed to fail young people on the move. They simply bolster the very phenomena – human smuggling and trafficking – they are intended to fight.

A more durable solution for their plight demands the opening of new channels of legal entry and the reinforcement of existing ones.

Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. This should apply in all actions relating unaccompanied minors. However, although virtually all the countries crossed by minors in their journeys are signatories of the CRC, children’s voices are seldom heard.

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