Human Smuggling Research Paper

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The illegal movements of migrants across national borders have become a global issue. Human smuggling is defined as those activities that facilitate illicit crossing of national borders with consent of the individuals smuggled. It is therefore closely connected to international migration as such. The present entry discusses definitions as well as background factors and basic characteristics of the process of smuggling over time. Characteristics of human smugglers and those of smuggled migrants are presented. In addition, the ways in which states respond to the challenges of detecting and dealing with human smuggling are dealt with. The paper closes with a brief discussion of controversies and future directions including the paradox of combating human smuggling and tensions between migration control and crime policies.

Introduction: Human Smuggling And Its Definition

Human smuggling is currently often presented as one of the most profitable criminal activities worldwide. A formerly relatively minor transborder activity affecting few neighboring countries has become a global activity (Saricca 2005:8). Tragedies like Dover in 2001 and Morecambe Bay in 2004 every now and then throw a spotlight on the largely hidden human smuggling trade. This trade takes place between China and Europe, the Horn of Africa and South Africa, and Asia and Australia, only to name a few routes. Media coverage of incidents is high, and thanks to popular movies, “snakehead” has even become a familiar word in many countries.

Movement of people across borders is far from new, but it is only in the 1990s that human smuggling, human trafficking, organized crime, and illegal migration came to attract attention of policy makers and researchers alike (Salt 2000). In this first phase, scientific and policy debates were severely hampered by lack of clarity in definitions and by conceptual confusion. Over the years consensus over definitions seems to come nearer, but the field remains complex and politicized. Empirical research is almost inherently difficult and many publications are written primarily from the viewpoint of law enforcement.


Human smuggling involves, put simply, those activities that facilitate illicit crossing of national borders with consent of the individuals smuggled, and it is therefore closely connected to migrants and international migration (Staring et al. 2005; Van Liempt and Doomernik 2006). The United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, which supplements the Palermo Protocol, accounts for consent in its definition of human smuggling, by clarifying that the “Smuggling of migrants shall mean the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident” (2011a:1). The protocol relates smuggling of migrants explicitly to the aim of obtaining financial benefits of the illegal entry of a person into a state (UNODC 2011a), thereby excluding helping a person to cross borders for humanitarian reasons.

Human smuggling and migration are often confused with trafficking in human beings (THB). These concepts have the following in common: they involve the movement of persons and they are all at least commonly associated with illegality, vulnerability, and exploitation. Yet, there are important differences between them. Crossing borders is not a necessary condition in the case of human trafficking (see chapter on THB by Smit and Van der Laan), where by contrast exploitation and lack of consent are crucial. Although the legal concepts are clearly different, there are also similarities and interconnections between human smuggling and human trafficking in practice, and one form can evolve into another (Aronowitz 2001). One could state that whereas human smuggling is perceived primarily in the context of international migration and organized crime, trafficking is, by and large, seen as an issue of (organized) crime as well as of human rights (with victims whose fundamental rights are violated). The idea that smuggled immigrants made a choice out of free will conflicts with notions of victimhood. Therefore, some researchers have made a case for a broader more sociological outlook on the phenomenon (Staring 2001; Van Liempt and Doomernik 2006). Migration scholars also stress that legal and illegal entry modes and flows of people are inextricably related. When facing restrictions, prospective immigrants employ an array of side doors and back doors in order to reach their destination, including the help of human smugglers (Castles and Miller 2009). In many instances, this does not have to involve criminal organizations.

Migrants who have been smuggled often become illegal immigrants once they enter the destination country. Several authors have criticized the use of the terms “illegal migrants” because of its connotations with criminality and called for replacing it by the term irregular migrants (for a discussion, see Koser 2005). Because in the end, all terms used may acquire similar connotations, the term “illegal” is used here despite its disadvantages (cf. Ngai 2003). It has the advantage that it refers to the way in which migrants relate to the construction of what is legal (Samers 2001).

Dimensions of illegal migration are entry, stay, work and, in a country like China, also exit (Van der Leun 2003). Exact regulations differ across jurisdictions. In case of human smuggling, the dimension of entry is crucial. Yet, what states consider as legitimate (legal) might not fully coincide with what individuals consider as such (Abraham and Van Schendel 2005). Transnational movements of people can be labeled illegal because they defy formal norms and authority, while in the participants’ view they can be acceptable, even licit.

Background Factors And Basic Characteristics

Global inequalities and integrated world markets shape push and pull factors for international mobility of people and, as such, also fuel processes of human smuggling. A number of factors can be identified in order to explain contemporary human smuggling, which in turn facilitates illegal migration. The globalization of communication means and transport routes are important ones: countries that have been once secluded are gradually becoming part of a global market and infrastructure. In addition, the availability of information and all forms of ties between individuals and communities brings societies closer together. Networks of immigrants and immigrant communities also play a crucial role in this respect (Massey et al. 1993). Restrictions on immigration, and sometimes on emigration, are meant to channel this mobility, but restrictions to some extent also create illegality and crime. At the same time, unregulated migration can involve social, financial, and political costs for the individuals, society, and governments alike.

Estimates of numbers of people and money involved have been made. At the end of the 1990s, IOM, for instance, estimated that four million people were smuggled across borders annually worldwide (IOM 1997). More recent UN assessments have suggested that total revenues of 10 billion dollars are involved, but these estimates are severely hampered by a lack of reliable data, conflicting perceptions and interests (Kyle and Koslowski 2011). Therefore, figures on human smuggling should be interpreted with care.

While some decades ago these forms of migration law violations and migration crime appeared to be phenomenon of the wealthier countries of the global north and west, they are now globally prevalent. Smuggling patterns have become more complex and in some cases also more dangerous.

Being smuggled is not without risks. Especially those migrants who are being smuggled by sea face high risks. Pugh (2004: 56) found that up to 3,000 people drowned in the Morocco-Spain crossings during the 1990s. More recently, in 2011, around 1,500 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea only in an attempt to reach Europe (Strik 2012). Moving to the border between Mexico and the United States, it is acknowledged that due to the increased militarized security measures at the border, fewer migrants cross illegally. Rose poses that this militarization of the Mexican-American border leads smugglers and migrants to choose more dangerous and desolated routes through the desert. As a result, the number of migrants dying in these illegal crossings remains stable the last 10 years (Rose 2012). Grassroots organizations such as the Human Rights Coalition estimate the number of victims in the southern border regions of the United States among the smuggled migrants around 200 yearly ( Apart from those who end up paying with their lives, smuggling can also be accompanied with other risks including violence.

Smuggling routes are highly diverse and constantly changing. At a global scale, Zhang (2007) has discerned four major smuggling routes to high-income regions and countries like Western Europe, Australia, and the United States: (1) from African countries through Spain and Italy to parts of Western Europe; (2) from Central Asia through countries like Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to Russia and then further to Western Europe through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine; (3) from the Middle East and Asia (China) to Australia and New Zealand; and finally (4) from Southern American countries or islands in the Caribbean via the Mexican-American border into the United States. The UNODC (2011a) classifies this perspective on human smuggling toward high-income countries as a rather traditional, western-centric vision, denying the dynamics and complex nature of people smuggling nowadays. Human smuggling networks do not only adapt routes and modus operandi in response to law enforcement, but smugglers have also developed routes toward West African countries, South Africa, and countries in the Middle East that also have economies that attract people from abroad (UNODC 2011a: 34–37).

Human Smugglers

Research has made it evidently clear that many illegal immigrants do not enter European countries through the help of human smuggling organizations but rather enter legally. These immigrants travel regularly and safely with tourist or business visa, guaranteed by the helping hands of relatives and friends living in the countries of destination. Only when they overstay their visa, they become illegal immigrants. Others were smuggled in by family or friends on their way back home from a holiday or visit in their home country. These transnational kinship-based networks can explain the arrival and further incorporation of illegal immigrants even in times of economic recession. This pattern coincides with what is referred to in the literature as chain migration, although in an irregular form (cf. MacDonald and MacDonald 1974). In these cases, financial gains are largely absent and a relative or friend of the illegal immigrant is often the human smuggler (Staring et al. 2005). Other prospective immigrants employ local smugglers or middleman during their travels from country to country without valid travel documents. They cross borders illegally by foot and by local means of transportation, or they pay local smugglers for difficult border crossings only. In the case of, for instance, the irregular trans-Saharan migration to North Africa and Europe, De Haas (2006) describes how local smugglers – often nomads or former immigrants – cooperate with local corrupt officials and intermediaries who have links to European employers. Finally, there are those international human smuggling networks that to a large extent dominate the media coverage and popular image as well as the political debate on combating irregular migration (Staring 2004; cf. Kleemans and van Brienen 2002): highly organized large-scale criminal organizations.

Several authors argue that the characterization of human smuggling in terms of international organized crime does not fit reality in most cases. Pastore et al. (2006) have demonstrated for Italy that the extent of organization is hugely overrated in popular belief. On the basis of a review of court cases, they argued that smuggling organizations in Italy are often little more than loose networks linking largely independent clusters of practical competencies, without a clear chain of command. Moving from Europe to the USA, Zhang (2008), a prominent expert on Chinese smuggling networks, stresses the fact that “snakeheads” should be perceived as opportunistic entrepreneurs who provide specific services in cooperation with other smugglers. They form flexible temporary business alliances rather than function in a stable organized setting. In line with these observations within Europe, Zhang’s study based on fieldwork among Chinese snakeheads has smashed the popular image of snakeheads as members of well-organized mafia-like gangs. In the Netherlands, the Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice and Safety continuously monitors organized crime by a two-yearly systematic analysis of closed investigations of criminal groups that are active in the Netherlands. In one of these monitors, the authors also concluded that human smuggling organizations show a huge diversity in terms or organizational structures (Kleemans and Van Brienen 2001). Other researchers who analyzed closed Dutch human smuggling investigations in the domain of organized crime stated that the majority of these human smuggling organizations showed more similarities with the image of small-scale informal entrepreneurship where economic motives intermingle with kinship-based loyalties. Large-scale, violent, and professionally organized human smuggling networks seem to be an exception rather than the rule (UNODC 2011a: 81).

Authorities and law enforcement agencies often claim that human smuggling is related to other forms of (organized) crime as document fraud and/or forgery, human trafficking, labor exploitation, money laundering, and terrorism. Among researchers this link between human smugglers and activities of organized crime groups is more controversial (UNODC 2011a). There is much more agreement on the existence of a shadow economy – especially in transit countries – surrounding human smuggling in which divergent facilitators operate. These include, for instance, forgers, burglars looking for identity documents, hairdressers, and beauty specialists for look-alikes; human smugglers sometimes do need local carriers and people safeguarding and taking care for the smuggled migrants in safe houses (Staring et al. 2005). Both informal economic activities and criminal activities take place within these shadow economies.

Smuggled Migrants

Migrants typically travel from relatively poor to richer areas, but the poorest people do not usually have the financial and social capital to move across borders. Those who are on the move are pushed by necessity and/or pulled by the prospect of a brighter future abroad and have the means to take action. As described before, many, probably most, illegal immigrants enter their country of destination in a legal manner and without the help of smugglers. Aronowitz (2001: 167) states that those “who fall prey to smugglers and traffickers are usually those most disadvantaged in their own countries: those with poor job skills or little chance of successful employment at home. They are often women and children.” In other words, a selective segment of the population of illegal immigrants makes use of the services of smugglers. Whereas the majority of the illegal immigrants employ human smugglers out of a lack of other opportunities, there are also those immigrants who chose for the paid services of human smugglers in order to stay away from moral claims of relatives and friends. There is also evidence that significant proportions of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Western Europe have also been smuggled, thereby blurring the boundaries between asylum migration and illegal migration (Koser 2005).

On the whole, the literature currently available on smuggled migrants is scarce and has inherent methodological flaws. Moreover, it tends to focus on migrants from the perspective of the countries of destination and from the perspective of migration control. Qualitative sociological studies on living conditions of illegal immigrants in Europe and the USA (see, for instance, Duvell 2006; Mahler 1995; Staring 2001; Van der Leun 2003; Van Meeteren 2012) show that illegal immigrants make up a highly diverse category of people. Relatively young men between 20 and 40 years of age make up a large share, but the share of women appears to be growing. Social networks are pivotal for their opportunities. Without social resources, they risk marginalization. Deportation is a main fear and health problems including mental health problems are often found among smuggled migrants.

In literature which views smuggling of migrants primarily as a form of organized crime, migrants are often presented as “human cargo” or passive objects trapped and moved around by criminal networks. These studies also emphasize the risks involved, up to death on the way. Although this can be a realistic picture, as the figures mentioned before have illustrated, it is also biased. Studies departing from a more sociological viewpoint emphasize human agency and point to the selectivity of the other perspective. Violence and risks can indeed be involved, but human smuggling is in many cases also “just” a way of making migration possible when legal options fail. Many migrants, including many who have made use of the services of smugglers, are pursuing a project of bettering their lives. Finding a way of making a living is their top priority.

After arrival illegal migrants typically start looking for (informal) work. They are prepared to do the jobs that natives shun, many times under poor conditions, for wages usually lower than those of the legal residents (Calavita 2005: 15). Businesses in receiving countries are searching for cheap labor input, while private homeowners welcome the domestic workers that otherwise they might not afford. Certain economic sectors even only survive international completion by employing illegal workers (Van der Leun and Kloosterman 2006).

There are also instances in which exploitation takes place after arrival. Migrants who have initially consented with their smuggling have to pay high smuggling fees and later find out they have to work under exploitative conditions in order to pay the sum back. Migrants from China, for instance, appear to face a high risk of being exploited through these forms of debt bondage. These are the cases in which human smuggling can turn into human trafficking, which were briefly mentioned before.

State Policies

Tackling the smuggling of migrants requires a comprehensive approach, in which governments across the world invest in different ways, extents, and configurations. Since terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, and many other places, the fight has become more intense. At the national level, border agencies such as customs, border police, and immigration services are responsible for the processing of people and goods at points of entry and exit as well as for the detection of human smuggling. Since the mid- 1980s, EU and especially Schengen officials have been intensifying police and judicial cooperation to combat illegal or irregular migration in response to the diminishing of internal borders (Boswell 2003). This was followed by the externalization of migration control to countries outside the EU in the form of so-called pre-frontier control, or capacity building of migration management and asylum systems in transit countries, or the deployment of EU police to combat migrant trafficking in the western Balkans. In 1999 the European Council on Justice and Home Affairs has strengthened cooperation in the area of migration, asylum, and security. Five years later FRONTEX was established – the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union. FRONTEX enables joint operations using member states’ staff and equipment at external sea, land, and air borders.

At the international level, important steps have been taken since the late 1990s with the so-called Vienna process in response to concerns about the involvement of organized crime in international migration. This has led to the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Smuggling of Migrants Protocol) which entered into force in 28 January 2004. In the whole multilevel playing field involved, a push toward a punitive approach is visible. The ultimate objective is dismantling organized crime networks that are active in migrant smuggling.

Controversies And Future Directions

Despite obvious successes, there is no convincing evidence that current policies to curb human smuggling are effective in doing what they should do (Kyle and Koslowski 2011). In fact, human smuggling is both adaptive and persistent (UNODC 2011b). Organized crime is not only feeding on and profiting by the phenomenon of illegal migration, but its activity also might be promoting it. This is partially the case because it does not influence root causes for international mobility. More effective long-term solutions to illegal migration and its facilitation would have to involve more legal opportunities for labor migration in receiving countries and diminishing economic differences between parts of the world, which have to be seen as long- and far-off-term aims. In the meantime governments still have to deal with international migration in many forms, including illicit forms.

Combating human smuggling will remain a challenging task, also in the future. Yet, law enforcement strategies and irregular migration policies are increasingly characterized by academics as not only ineffective but also inhumane because they lead to a race between law enforcement agencies, human smugglers, and the migrants. More militarization of and control at the borders will lead to new and more dangerous routes and as such will also contribute to an increasing number of victims and a lucrative market for organized crime. New technology might to some extent offer solutions, but it also will bring about new problems and adaptations. Engbersen and Broeders (2009) emphasize that the increasing digitalization of control within Europe has made the cat-and-mouse game between states and illegal migrants, pushing them further underground.

Many studies have demonstrated that rather than focussing on those behind human smuggling, many governments still, or even increasingly, see and treat smuggled individuals as criminals. In practice, people who are smuggled are often the ones to be arrested, detained, and expelled. This tendency appears to be strengthened by processes of crimmigration and securitization which puts the emphasis on “dangerous others” (Pugh 2004; Stumpf 2006). Yet, it should not be forgotten that protecting human rights is at the fundaments of the international protocols that underlie the fight against human smuggling. In line with international protocols, it is very clear that policies should focus on those behind human smuggling, rather than on those smuggled. Or as the recent UN Action Plan states: “Where migrants are simply detained and returned to countries of origin without investigating the actors involved in smuggling those migrants, the criminal processes at work continue unchallenged” (UNODC 2011b: 6).


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