24.4.2020 | Von:
Gabriella Sanchez

Deconstructing the Myth of the Migrant Smuggler

Migrant smugglers are often considered unscrupulous criminals who exploit people in helpless situations. However, research results show a more complicated picture. The present contribution is an attempt to shed light on the complexity of migration facilitation.

Tausende Menschen aus Zentralamerika auf ihrem Weg an die US-Grenze (hier in Tapanatepec, Mexico, Ende 2018). Viele der Flüchtenden gaben an, sich unter tausenden anderen Flüchtlingen sicherer zu fühlen, als sich einem Schlepper anzuvertrauen.Thousands of people from Central America on their way to the US border (here in Tapanatepec, Mexico, end of 2018). Many of the refugees stated that they felt safer among thousands of other refugees than to put their trust in a smuggler. (© picture-alliance/AP, Rodrigo Abd)

A world full of smugglers?

Worldwide, the attention that is paid to migration – especially the kind that is irregular – has given rise to a series of very specific characters and narratives. One of them is that of the migrant smuggler. The smuggler, we are told, operates in the shadows, taking advantage of gullible, vulnerable migrants, selling them services that put them in danger. Smugglers are said to exploit women and children (often sexually), and to have connections to many other criminals in the illicit underworld, ranging from organ traffickers to drug dealers to even terrorists. But the story does not end there. Media, law enforcement and scholars tell us smugglers morph, adapt and evolve, and have an almost preternatural knowledge of technology that makes it difficult for law enforcement to catch up with them, allowing for their market to grow and generate exorbitant returns.

The images that these representations evoke are frightening and do constitute a matter of concern. There is abundant evidence of the kinds of risks and challenges migrants face in the context of the journeys that are facilitated by smugglers. Tragic incidents are for example the one that led to the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015, the one involving the deaths of the 71 people whose remains were found in the back of a lorry in Austria in 2015, or that of 39 Vietnamese women and men who died in a refrigerated truck in Great Britain in October of 2019. But the reality of facilitating migrants' (illegal) journeys is far more complex than the images of ruthless smugglers spread e.g. by politicians and the media may suggest.

Certainly negligence and lack of care are reasons for these great tragedies. But if attention is too much focused on the smugglers, other important aspects are neglected: One, that most migrants who are considered irregular or without documents actually entered the countries where they live legally [1] – in other words, not all migrants living irregularly around the world relied on smugglers to reach their destination. Another is the fact that migrants face violence or victimization not only at the hands of those who facilitate their journeys for a fee. Law enforcement, military forces, staff from humanitarian organizations, other migrants and even ordinary citizens are also often among those who negatively impact the lives of people in transit.[2] Third, around the world, incidents of people being criminally charged with smuggling for rescuing or providing humanitarian assistance to migrants (e.g. the crews of ships of private search and rescue missions) are becoming commonplace.[3]

But most importantly, by focusing on smugglers alone, we forget the reason at the core of the demand for their services: The reduction in the availability of safe, legal and dignified paths to migration. This in turn, has generated the demand for the services of brokers or facilitators – often migrants themselves – who can help people enter into countries different from their own clandestinely; but also of attempts devoid of criminal or financial intentions to assist those seeking to reach safety.

What is smuggling?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Protocol on Smuggling of Migrants defines smuggling as a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of the illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident.

While the definition is widely accepted, it has come under the criticism of scholars and practitioners over the years for several reasons. One is the fact that smuggling is often used as a synonym of irregular migration when in fact, not all journeys migrants embark upon are irregular, nor constitute an act of smuggling. Whether a person is considered an irregular or undocumented migrant may change in transit and is assigned or determined by the country (or countries) through which he or she travels. For example: people who are citizens of any of the 15 countries that constitute the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) can travel across West Africa without restrictions, and even if or when facilitated by brokers or guides, their journeys are not considered criminal in nature. It is only once people enter into countries outside of ECOWAS that if lacking proper documentation, people can be potentially identified as irregular. Something similar can be said of the facilitation of migrant journeys: some countries have legislation in line with the protocol, while others do not (e.g. the U.S., Tunisia and Mexico). This also means that the term “smuggler” that we use in reference to those behind migrant journeys may be inadequate, for it implies the commission of a criminal offense, when the empirical evidence indicates that many people operate without criminal intentions, simply facilitating segments or steps of migrant journeys.[4]

So who are the smugglers then?

While smuggling is an allegedly underground, clandestine, illicit practice, it is surprising that in the official and media narratives of migration its perpetrators are clearly defined and represented. They are gendered as male and often racialized as people of colour.[5] There is also a tendency to claim they are organized into criminal networks with a reach that spans across continents, and which interact or converge with other criminal groups. Reports from international organizations monitoring transnational crime also suggest the profits generated by smuggling may exceed those of the drug trade, and in so contribute to its global spread and might.[6]

Despite all the reports concerning smuggling, academic, empirical work documenting the work of actors facilitating migrant journeys points to a very different environment, one that may lack the hype and the sensationalism present in media and law enforcement representations. Anthropologist Hans Lucht has in fact referred to the journeys of migrants as “hypo-reality,” for they are distant from the flashy, dramatic characterizations popular in the media and official narratives.[7] Most migrants are ordinary people who strive to lead a life of dignity.

What the evidence does indicate, is that those who facilitate migrants’ journeys across deserts, oceans and countries and even entire continents, are people who do indeed profit from their knowledge of the land, trajectories and mechanisms migrants must rely upon to reach specific destinations. But these profits are often minimal, and facilitators tend to recirculate them into the economies of their own communities, which also have a tendency to present high levels of marginalization, unemployment and poverty.[8]

While the claim that many smuggling groups have transnational ties to other smuggling organizations is strong, data also suggest that facilitators of migration work instead independently, and often alongside other people like themselves. From this fact alone it cannot be directly deduced that these people share a sense of membership or (organizational) affiliation. In other words, their interactions are more than anything the result of proximity or convenience, rather than of structural or organisational ties. They are people who come together on an as-needed basis to perform specific tasks that are ultimately conducive of mobility.[9]

What are these tasks? Facilitators may work as guides, driving people along stretches of their journeys, recruiting potential migrants, providing them with places to stay, as well as room and board. Some pick up payments, while others negotiate arrangements with authorities and the friends and family members of those who travel, in the process developing a social reputation that allows them to carry out their work and generate additional business.

While there is a tendency to refer to those behind migrants’ journeys as male, research also shows women are quite involved in the provision of specific roles or services. Women are more likely than men to carry out cleaning and cooking duties at safe houses (the places where migrants wait as they move from one place to the next). They are also more likely to be those caring for migrant children, pregnant women and injured people. These roles are often perceived as peripheral or unimportant, despite the fact that they are conducive of the very preservation of human life.[10]

Children and young people are also well known to be involved in the facilitation of journeys, often their own. Lacking the social and financial capital that are often needed to embark on a clandestine journey, young people enter into agreements to work off their fees by recruiting other migrants, running errands, acting as lookouts and piloting boats. As young people, they face specific challenges – they are more likely to be scammed and abused, to work for free or under false promises or under circumstances that compromise their personal safety. Research also shows many young people work in the facilitation of migrant journeys as a way to support their families.[11]

In short, far from being heartless criminals driven by greed, those who work for facilitating migrants' journeys are often people impacted by structural inequality, and include, rather than feared mafias or transnational criminal networks, marginalized men, women and children, who are often seeking to migrate as well. This does not intend to suggest that migrants do not experience violence or abuse in the context of their journeys, or that those who work in the business do it solely out of benevolence, but rather than the experiences of the people on the migration pathway are a lot more diverse than what media and law enforcement reporting suggests. In short, smuggling activities "involve a wide array of actors and activities from small-scale and low-profit venture, loosely connected individuals, who sometimes work on an ad hoc basis, to full-time professionals and more sophisticated organizations, (opportunistic individuals to organized criminal networks)."[12]

So what is the problem with smuggling?

As mentioned earlier, there is an official, widely accepted definition of smuggling outlined in the UNODC Smuggling Protocol. Said definition was originally proposed not to address the offenses carried out against migrants by sanguinary smugglers. It was an effort on the part of nations around the world (primarily Europe and the US) to criminalize irregular entries, under the assumption that these were on the rise.

But over time, both empirical research and case law have shown that many of the cases where people have been prosecuted for smuggling did not fall within the parameters of the UNODC protocol: actions that were defined as smuggling were not always criminal, but instead constituted attempts on the part of the many who were facing war or other kinds of conflict to reach safety outside of their countries of origin or transit. In other words, smuggling is often the only option available for those lacking legal, safe and dignified paths for travel to reach safety. Therefore, the UNODC protocol was adapted to include a humanitarian clause aimed to prevent the criminalisation of these efforts. A second clause on financial or other benefit was also introduced, as evidence also revealed that people often welcomed or received irregular migrants in their homes, or had transported them for stretches of their journeys, for the sole purpose of saving their lives and for no financial and/or in-kind compensation.[13]

However, not all countries have adapted or incorporated the humanitarian and the profit clauses into their legislation. In Europe, this has led to many of those facing smuggling charges being not the feared members of organised crime we read about in the news, but instead the parents of children who attempted to smuggle them in an attempt to reunify their families; the spouses of irregular migrants who lived with them without reporting them to authorities; people who attempted to smuggle friends or even strangers in an attempt to help them reach safety.[14] There is of course the cases of people smuggling others for profit. But even in those cases, gains are (mostly) slim. Cases involving women prosecuted for smuggling in Europe and the United States revealed that profits most often went to cover basic necessities like past-due rent, medication or school uniforms.[15]

What should we do next?

While commonplace, representations and narratives concerning migrant journeys must be examined and contextualized. It is important to notice how they do a lot more than communicating pain and tragedy: they often mobilise notions of migrants as law-breakers and those who facilitate their journeys as inherently criminal, and which become part of the way we collectively speak about migrants and migration. There are indeed forms of smuggling that are exploitative and abusive. However, we should not forget to look beyond the headlines, for the reason that these informal, and often criminalised forms of mobility are the result not of the actions of a few, but of a systematic and global decrease in the paths for many people to move safely, legally and with dignity.


European Commission, Migration and Home Affairs, Irregular Migration & Return: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/irregular-migration-return-policy_en (accessed: 10-12-2019).
UNHCR/UN Support Mission in Libya (2018): Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya. https://reliefweb.int/report/libya/desperate-and-dangerous-report-human-rights-situation-migrants-and-refugees-libya (accessed: 18-12-2019).
Carrera, Sergio et al. (2019): 'Fit for Purpose? The Facilitation Directive and the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance to irregular migrants: 2018 update'. CEPS, February. https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/fit-purpose-facilitation-directive-and-criminalisation-humanitarian-assistance/ (accessed: 10-12-2019).
Zhang, Sheldon X./Sanchez, Gabriella E./Achilli, Luigi (2018): 'Crimes of Solidarity in Mobility: Alternative Views on Migrant Smuggling'. The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, 21 February. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002716217746908 (accessed: 10-12-2019). Vogt, Wendy (2018): Lives in Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey. Sacramento: University of California Press; Ayalew, Tekalign (2018): Refugee Protections from Below: Smuggling in the Eritrea-Ethiopia Context. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 676(1), 57-76; Lucht, Hans (2011): Darkness before daybreak: African migrants living on the margins in Southern Italy today. Sacramento: University of California Press.
For racialized, exoticized representations of smugglers in the media see for example: My Smuggler, My Savior by Nicole Sobecki at https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/my-smuggler-my-savior; The 21st Century Gold Rush, by Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/the-21st-century-gold-rush-refugees/#/niger; and John Holman’s Portrait of a Human Smuggler, https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/people-smugglers-cartel-south-america/index.html (all accessed: 16-12-2019).
International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2016): Migrant Smuggling Data and Research: A global review of the emerging evidence base. https://gmdac.iom.int/smuggling-report (accessed: 16-12-2019).
UCLA International (2018): International Conference on Refugee Policies and Refugee Movements. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faLWDAS6li4 (accessed: 10-12-2019).
Sanchez, Gabriella E. (2018): Five misconceptions about migrant smuggling. Policy Briefs, 7/2018, Migration Policy Centre. https://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/54964 (accessed: 10-12-2019).
Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (ed) (2018): Illegal immigrants and the deportation from Italy. Socio-anthropological study. https://ftdes.net/rapports/etude.rapatrie.en.pdf (accessed: 10-12-2019).
UNODC (2019): Gender Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants. https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/tip-and-som/module-13/index.html (accessed: 10-12-2019).
Achilli, Luigi et al. (2017): On my own: protection challenges for unaccompanied and separated children in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece. Mixed Migration Platform (MMP) Report, INTERSOS, Migration Policy Centre. https://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/48126 (accessed: 10-12-2019).
UNODC (2019): Gender Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants. https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/tip-and-som/module-13/index.html (accessed: 10-12-2019).
Gallagher, Anne (2017): Whatever Happened to the Migrant Smuggling Protocol? International Organization for Migration. https://publications.iom.int/books/whatever-happened-migrant-smuggling-protocol (accessed: 10-12-2019).
See, respectively, the following cases in the UNODC Case Law Database (SHERLOC): Cour d'Appel de Paris Dossier Nº 01/00550, 25 June 2001, https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/migrantsmugglingcrimetype/fra/2001/case_0100550.html; Tribunal de Grande Instance de Lyon Jugement Nº 2394.6EME C, 18 March 2008, https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/migrantsmugglingcrimetype/fra/2008/jugement_n_2394.html; R v Olulode [2006] EWCA Crim 538 (23 February 2006) https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/migrantsmugglingcrimetype/gbr/2006/r_v_olulode.html?lng=en&tmpl=sherloc (all accessed: 16-12-2019).
See for example, R v Lirina Iljina [2011] EWCA Crim 975 (23 March 2011) https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/migrantsmugglingcrimetype/gbr/2011/r_v_iljina.html; also Sanchez, G. (2016): Women as human smuggling facilitators: the case of the US Southwest. Geopolitics 21(2). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14650045.2016.1140645 (accessed: 16-12-2019).
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