On the trail of migrant smugglers

JOHANNESBURG, 7 January 2014 (IRIN) – When the corpses of migrants are discovered in the desert, floating at sea, or in airless container trucks, the official response often includes calls to take action against the smugglers. Following the deaths of over 300 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in October 2013, for example, Italy’s integration minister, Cecile Kyenge, declared, “Behind these tragedies… there are human traffickers who are enriching themselves on the backs of people who are fleeing war and hunger,” and urged increased patrols to target people smugglers.

Statements like Kyenge’s reflect the widely held perception that “human trafficker” and “people smuggler” can be used interchangeably to describe shadowy criminal networks preying on desperate and naïve people. The small number of researchers worldwide who study migrant smuggling say the truth is often less malevolent and more complex.

To begin with, smugglers – unlike traffickers – provide a service that migrants willingly pay for. The definition provided by the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol, which forms part of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, says that service must involve helping someone to gain illegal entry to another country in return for “financial or other material benefit”.

The demand for such services has increased as states around the world have shored up their borders over the last 10 to 15 years, making it more difficult for would-be migrants and asylum seekers to enter countries legally.

In a statement released on International Migrants Day (18 December), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) pointed to the “direct link between tighter border controls and increases in people smuggling”, which it described as a US$35-billion-a-year business.[Full article]