On June 5, 2016, UNICEF released a report on the growing number of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children who have been arriving in Europe since 2015. The report, Danger Every Step of the Way, exposes the risks — including detention, rape, forced labour, beatings, and death — faced by children who rely on smugglers to embark on perilous land and sea journeys destined for Europe. The report emerged amid escalating uproar surrounding the increasing vulnerability of migrant and refugee women and children to the exploitation of traffickers.
A survey conducted by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) between December 2015 and March 2016 recorded that 1 in 10 migrant and refugee respondents answered positively to an indicator of the “presence of human trafficking” and other “exploitative practices” along the Eastern Mediterranean migration route. In light of this information, the IOM has asked European governments to be more diligent about monitoring human trafficking.
States often use trafficking to generate emotional and political support for the war on clandestine migration. They rely on deeply scripted racial and gendered binaries to determine whether or not migrants are worthy of the victim label. Women and children — who are generally portrayed as vulnerable and innocent — fit the bill, whereas men are more likely to be categorized as “economic migrants.” This investment in innocence not only excludes and marginalizes those who do not meet the “perfect victim” criteria, but also frames “smugglers” as the guilty party.
In the current panic surrounding refugee children and women, it is not uncommon for mainstream media and politicians to use the terms “smuggler” and “trafficker” interchangeably, arguably to the detriment of migrants and refugees. Conflating the legal categories of smuggling and trafficking not only calls for a transnational crime response to what should be treated as a human rights issue, but also detracts from an analysis that would make the connection between the increasing instances of human smuggling and the insufficiency and violence of EU border policies.
The Human Rights Watch outlines three main differences between the smuggling and trafficking of human beings, which…