Smugglers Aren’t The Real Problem In The Refugee Crisis

The Establishment
Jul 7, 2016 · 6 min read

By Penelope Kyritsis

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 helps to illustrate the dangers in making them synonymous:

  • Consent. The smuggled person agrees to being moved from one place to another. Trafficking victims, on the other hand, have either not agreed to be moved or, if they have, have been deceived into agreeing by false promises, only to then face exploitation.
  • Exploitation. Smuggling ends at the chosen destination where the smuggler and the smuggled person part ways. In contrast, traffickers exploit their victim at the final destination and/or during the journey.
  • Transnationality. Smuggling always involves crossing international borders whereas trafficking occurs regardless of whether victims are taken to another country or moved within a country’s borders.

For years now, research has made it abundantly clear that anti-smuggling measures do little to help migrants and refugees: Instead of decreasing the number of refugees and migrants relying on smugglers, they lead to smuggling under more dangerous conditions. It is essentially impossible for refugees and migrants to escape war and poverty and to make it to Europe without the help of smugglers. At the end of the day, smugglers provide a service to refugees and migrants as a reaction to the lack of legal migration opportunities to the EU; they are not the cause of irregular migration.

As the World Bank outlines in their People Move blog — dedicated to migration, remittances, and development — the fanaticism surrounding smuggling and border control has created an auxiliary cottage industry that simultaneously bleeds taxpayers money and stimulates the services of private companies alternatively looking to “protect” refugees and foster xenophobia:

“While the same politicians fan the flames of xenophobia by insinuating that refugees will be a huge drain on public funds and a threat to social cohesion, they waste billions of public funds on border controls, which have not stopped irregular migration, but created a market for smuggling and increased the suffering and death toll at Europe’s borders — at least 30,000 people died in their attempt to reach or stay in Europe since 2000.

Across the Atlantic, similar same dynamics can be found on the US-Mexican border, where soaring public expenditure on border controls has fueled a military-industrial complex consisting of arms manufacturers, technology firms, (privatized) migrant detention centers, the military and state bureaucracies involved in deporting people. In a study entitled Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, published in 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based migration think tank, calculated that the US government spent $187 Billion on Federal Immigration Enforcement between 1986 and 2012.”

If this is the case, why are we so invested in narratives that rely on the innocent refugee/guilty smuggler binary? What is at stake when we rest on simplified panic narratives that view smugglers as the ultimate perpetrators of violence in the refugee crisis?

This has created a multi-billion industry, which has huge commercial interest in making the public believe that migration is an essential threat and that border controls will somehow solve this threat.

The point here is not to minimize the violence endured by refugees and migrants throughout their journeys. This violence has been competently documented by a host of humanitarian organizations. It is important, however, to be critical of the obscuring function of the smuggler panic narrative. By focusing on the guilt of smugglers, we ignore the deep and violent continuities of war and capitalism, which are drivers for migration.

The reality is that we are more comfortable with associating the death and violence inflicted upon refugees and migrants to the smuggling industry because it is a convenient way to ignore the complicity and culpability of the EU in war (such as Syria and Afghanistan) and global capitalism, and their sustaining of migration and asylum policies that are founded on exclusive notions of citizenship and sovereignty.

Furthermore, declaring war on smugglers allows states to legitimize security-based policies, the militarization of borders, and the military patrol of the Mediterranean — which renders the lives of refugees and migrants even more precarious (and makes them more dependent on smugglers). Finally, it supports the myth that human smugglers are the ones profiting from the crisis, when European arms manufacturers and technology firms are generating an enormous profit from sophisticated technologies like sensors, cameras, drones, and wires.

Recently, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) declared that they would no longer be taking donations from the EU in protest to the way that they have been responding to the refugee crisis, citing the EU-Turkey deportation deal among other EU efforts to curb migration.

MSF explained it can no longer take money from countries and institutions that are “intensifying attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores. This decision will take effect immediately and will apply to MSF’s projects worldwide.”

Jérôme Oberreit, MSF’s international secretary general, went on to say:

“Deterrence policies sold to the public as humanitarian solutions have only exacerbated the suffering of people in need. There is nothing remotely humanitarian about these policies. It cannot become the norm and must be challenged.”

This bold statement came at a time when many are asking the EU to uphold their obligation to protect the human rights of migrants and refugees. If we are going to have any expectations from the EU, we need to be honest about one thing: It is not smugglers that are turning the Mediterranean into a mass grave, but rather EU migration policies that are carefully engineered and built on traditions of exclusion and dispossession.


Lead image: A group of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrives on the Rameshwaram island of Tamil Nadu after a risky 30-mile boat ride across the Palk Straits. As civil war erupted once again in Sri Lanka in 2005 amid tsunami rehabilitation, thousands of refugees crossed over to India. Credit: flickr/Climatalk .in

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has…

The Establishment

Written by

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded & run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

Written by

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded & run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store