4 Things The Media Gets Wrong About Migrant Smugglers

1st October 2015 By ,   0 Comments

What are Migrant Smugglers?

Migrant smuggling – or people smuggling – means helping someone to enter a country without authorisation. A migrant smuggler will generally help people to get around border controls or get them false or fake travel or identity documents.

Migrant smugglers have been in the news a lot in the last months. Many say they are the guys we need to deal with if we want to solve Europe’s ongoing migrant and refugee crisis. Earlier in the year there was even talk of bombing their boats to get rid of them.

We found 4 things the media is getting totally wrong about migrant smugglers.

#1 Migrant smugglers can be stopped with better border controls.



European states are sending warships to confront people smugglers in the Mediterranean.

Wrong move! All the evidence tells us that increased border controls only encourage smugglers and make people more dependent on them.

People struggling through a razor wire border fence

Smugglers only exist because border controls exist

As leading migration professor Hein de Haas explains, smuggling people in boats across the Mediterranean only began when Spain and Italy introduced visas and blocked free entry in the early 1990s. This started out as a small-scale operation run by local fishermen. However, the more border controls Spain introduced, the more professionalised and profitable the smuggling became. The hit-back against migrant smugglers that has been ongoing throughout the 2000s only encouraged them to try out different routes.

Border controls do not put smugglers off. The opposite is true: Migrant smugglers exist because border controls exist.

Border controls create market demand for smugglers who provide a service to people escaping conflict, persecution and economic stagnation.

#2 All migrant smugglers do is exploit people for profit.

We often read news stories about abusive people smugglers who charge vulnerable people extortionate amounts of money, only to abandon them in death-trap boats in the middle of the Mediterranean.

This stereotype is true of some but not all migrant smugglers. People smugglers provide a professional service. Just as with any other service, they need to keep up a good reputation as reliable, trustworthy and cheap. Some smugglers, like Michael who works between Sudan and Libya, have to conduct their business alongside other smugglers who give their trade a bad name: “They sell our people like beasts. Eritreans are my people, my family. I take responsibility for them.”

Also just like the full-time providers of any other professional service, people smugglers need to make money to keep their business going.

Not all smugglers turn a profit, let alone a massive one. Some have been known to operate on a pay-what-you-can basis – providing free service for those who cannot pay.

Amir Heidari a well known human smuggler

Amir Heidari worked on a pay-what-you-can basis

Refugee turned anthropologist Shahram Khosravi of Stockholm University interviewed one of the best-known human smugglers among Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds – Amir Heidari – in prison in Sweden. He tells how his philosophy was to “take more from one who had money and send one who had no money for free.”

However – since increased border controls have made smuggling people a much riskier business – prices have been pushed up and up in the last decades.

Some would describe the work of people smugglers as more than simply a service. In the words of one Eritrean refugee speaking to Al Jazeera: “Smugglers could be compared to those individuals who helped black people during slavery moving from the South to the North in the US and today are considered heroes. Maybe one day smugglers will be considered heroes too because they helped people find freedom.”  

Some people smugglers are undoubtedly exploiting the market that has been created by restrictive border controls. What is really important is that not all smugglers make a significant profit. The reason why this is so important is that treating all smugglers like criminals makes things a hell of a lot worse.

#3 All migrant smugglers are criminals who don’t care about people’s safety.

Accepting payment to smuggle someone across a state border without authorisation is a criminal offence across most European countries, punishable with imprisonment or deportation.

This means that in official terms all smugglers are criminals, because smuggling is against the law.

However, not all smugglers fit the stereotype of reckless gangsters who don’t mind putting people in danger.

Much more worryingly, it is treating smugglers as criminals and threatening them with arrest which encourages them to take more risks and put more people in danger.

Border authorities in boat

Migrant smugglers will do anything to avoid getting arrested by border patrols

It is often thought that making people smuggling a crime is what will keep people safe from exploitation. In reality, making smuggling a crime is often what pushes smugglers towards criminal gangs and encourages them to exploit people.

As migration researcher Mollie Gerver explains for London School of Economics, the fear of arrest means smugglers require extensive intelligence information to evade border officials, which they can only get by teaming up with those involved in arms trading and trafficking sex workers.

This means the trade is being taken over by professional criminal gangs, pushing out more amateur smugglers who have closer personal ties to refugee communities and so are less likely to demand large profit margins.

The fear of arrest also encourages smugglers to commit terrible acts of violence against the people they are transporting. As Gerver writes: ” In June, smugglers wished to avoid reaching an EU port to prevent being arrested, so they threw pregnant women and children overboard and then turned their ship back to sea. These were repugnant actions, but they were also a response to legal incentives: they threw individuals overboard precisely to avoid imprisonment.”

Let’s be clear; some migrant smugglers do commit awful acts of negligence and violence. However, treating them as if they are all alike only gives them more incentive to operate underground and take risks. Anything to avoid being caught.

#4 Stopping people smugglers will put an end to migrant deaths. 

Believing in this myth, as many do, has grave consequences. Attempts to crack down on people smuggling will likely lead to more deaths. This is because criminalising smuggling and closing off established routes will only encourage smugglers to seek out other, often much more dangerous, routes.

Experience has shown us that no disincentive is great enough to stop people trying to leave if they want to leave – and Europe’s current strategy of targeting people smugglers only contributes to migrant deaths. 

This graphic from Research Professor Jørgen Carling says it all.

Migrant Smugglers Explained: Sure, smugglers are part of the process which leads to people drowning in the Mediterranean. However, they are operating within a market that has been created by border restrictions, some of the people they help would call them ‘heroes’ and ‘freedom facilitators’ and yet they are increasingly encouraged to take risks in order to avoid arrest.

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