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Both angels and demons?
The role and nature of migrant smugglers

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

It is important to note that this essay is about smuggling (transporting and assisting migrants who seek and pay for services) and does not refer to human trafficking (in which exploitation is a key feature). Although the distinction can sometimes be blurred, this categorization is to be borne in mind.

In 2015, Europol and Interpol estimated that the journeys of 90 percent of the people in mixed migratory movements into the European Union were predominantly facilitated by members of a “criminal network of smugglers”, albeit ones organized in loosely connected networks. A similar picture could be drawn from mixed migration routes in the Americas, Asia and Oceania. If this is a new age of migration, it is surely also a new age of migrant smuggling.

Smugglers have their detractors and supporters: there are arguments to applaud them and to damn them. Are migrant smugglers devilish profiteers of desperation or angelic service providers? Or is the reality altogether more mixed? This article briefly explores and challenges the politicised and partisan narratives and ethics used to explain and characterise migrant smuggling.

In through the back door

Over the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the world’s wealthiest and peaceful states have steadily developed increasingly restrictive entry controls. As they have done so, the world’s poorer and less secure people, those fleeing conflict and persecution, or seeking a better life, have had to adapt their methods of bypassing entry controls. “Unauthorized migration shifted from regular means of transport (planes and ferries) to smuggler boats and trucks.” Many refugees, fleeing war and persecution, “would never stand a chance of reaching safety without smugglers”. Responding to both government policies and restrictions, as well as to migrant and asylum seeker needs and desires, smugglers can be considered as the vectors shaping contemporary irregular migration.

Many say most migrant smugglers are little more than travel agents, facilitators, handlers, saviours and dream-fixers providing a service to their clients. This perspective only reluctantly admits that there may be a few rotten apples and insists that where risk exists, it is not generated by the smugglers themselves but primarily by the restrictive migration policies that force refugees and migrants to use smugglers.

Disingenuous battle lines

Presumably this narrative is an effort to counter the government-led United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and other initiatives aimed at tackling migrant smuggling. This battle is in its early stages, but it has been criticised from the start for deliberately demonising smugglers when the fault is said to really lie with the restrictive immigration policies that create irregular migration and the need for smugglers.

Governments may indeed be using the anti-smuggler rhetoric to distract from the real intention of preventing access and curtail irregular movements. However, to recast human smugglers as part of a benign system that merely assists migrants and refugees — absolving them of, or minimising, their culpability — is also not an honest appraisal.

Unwitting truths

Graph 8. From the Mixed Migration Review 2018, page 123.

Those in favour of restricting migration tend to over-emphasize negative and criminal aspects of migrant smuggling and often conflate migrant smuggling with human trafficking, creating a justification for harsher policies and crackdowns on migrant smuggling. However, the role of smugglers in violence against refugees and migrants does not need exaggeration. Available data clearly indicate that much of the abuse and violence (including deaths and rape) suffered by migrants and refugees en route comes at the hand of their smugglers.1 4Mi data presented in Graph 8 show that on all routes, smugglers are responsible for 50 percent of all incidents of sexual violence, physical violence, robbery and kidnapping reported by respondents. This figure goes up to 76 percent along the Horn of Africa to North Africa and EU route. Only on routes where there is generally a lower dependency on smugglers, such as the West Africa to West & Central Africa route, where refugees and migrants are still within the ECOWAS free movement area, are smugglers less responsible for violence against people on the move.

Similarly, data from the MEDMIG project based on a sample of 500 refugees and migrants interviewed in Europe shows that all of them partially or wholly used smugglers to undertake their journey. Critically, 76 percent directly experienced violence while nearly a third (29 percent) witnessed people die along the way. The perpetrators were reported as smugglers and state officials.

Many causes of death

Looking at deaths of refugees and migrants specifically, although deaths occur due to physical hardship and fatal events or natural causes (including illness, suicide and general debilitation), often smugglers are directly implicated in these deaths by acts of commission and omission. When migrants are in the charge of smugglers, or when they have been abandoned or left stranded by smugglers, fatalities often occur due to: malicious neglect or abuse during smuggling; dehydration or hunger; and torture and murder at the hands of smugglers, traffickers and other criminals.

The causes of death witnessed by 4Mi respondents across all routes (who reported a total of 1,134 incidents in which they witnessed the death of other refugees or migrants) included: sickness and lack of access to health services (40.6 percent), dehydration (23 percent), starvation (22.6 percent), vehicle accident (16 percent), harsh weather conditions (15.4 percent), excessive physical abuses (12.3 percent), shooting or knife attacks (11.8 percent) and suffocation (8.6 percent). On average, in about one third of these incidents respondents said the smugglers were responsible, with much higher percentages on some routes, such as the Horn of Africa towards North Africa/EU (49.6 percent) and to South Africa (64.3 percent). Moreover, these answers only apply to instances of direct responsibility for deaths as a result of violence, whereas cases of death as a result of suffocation, dehydration and starvation can also be the responsibility of smugglers.

Even when abuses against or killings of migrants and refugees are performed by non-smugglers, it was often the smugglers that sold or handed them over to other perpetrators, including state officials. In many cases migrants report that the smugglers work in tandem or collusion with the gangs, traffickers and state officials along the journey.

The missing and the drowned

Deaths have also occurred and/or may also be assumed to have occurred in the thousands of cases related to disappearances of migrants along their journey. These occur in diverse locations including, inter alia, the region around the US-Mexican border; mountain passes of the Balkans routes towards Europe; the Sahara Desert; Rohingya and Bangladeshis in the forests of Thailand; thousands of Ethiopian and Somali female migrants in Yemen since 2012; and those, mostly Eritreans, who disappeared while being trafficked in the Egyptian Sinai.2 Available data on refugees and migrants drowning are incomplete and partial, so actual numbers may be much higher, be they in the South China, Andaman, Caribbean, or Mediterranean (including the Aegean) seas, the Mozambique Channel (Comoros), the Gulf of Aden, the Bay of Bengal, the Strait of Malacca or other Pacific waters. In many cases, migrant deaths at sea are the result of forced overcrowding,3 insufficient supplies of fuel, exposure to fumes in enclosed spaces, bad engines or unseaworthy vessels, and offshore abandonment or forced disembarkation (conducted by smugglers with the aim of avoiding detection).

Every year since 2015, more than 3,000 refugees and migrants are estimated to have perished while crossing the Mediterranean on crossings organized by migrant smugglers, with 5,143 deaths recorded in 2016. In 2018, up until the 1st of October, the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean stands at 1,733. While absolute numbers may be lower in 2018 than in previous years, this is primarily due the much lower number of people departing from Libya. In fact, the mortality rate (the number of dead/missing compared to the number of departures) increased sharply, from around 1.85 percent in 2015, to seven percent after mid-June 2018, to 19 percent September 2018.

A unifying characteristic of the grim list of deaths mentioned above is the direct or indirect involvement of smugglers, even smugglers along some routes appear to be more implicated in violence and death than along others. Moreover, smugglers operate in a context of almost complete impunity, aided no doubt by the collusion of certain state officials.

Not all smugglers are the same

Graph 9. From the Mixed Migration Review 2018, page 125.

Even to ask whether smugglers are angels or demons is to gloss over the complex and diverse nature of the migrant smuggling business. There are many different types and roles within migrant smuggling. As shown in Graph 9, 4Mi respondents cite a wide range of services offered by their smugglers, including safe travel across borders, accommodation, transportation, provision of documents and “liaison” with authorities. On some routes, specific services are more important. For example, on the Afghanistan to South East Asia route, many respondents travelled by plane, in which cases the provision of documents was a crucial service for many. There are the initial recruiters or first contacts who often lead would-be migrants to negotiate with main organisers, often locally-known characters. In most cases the smuggler-facilitated journey is led by small-scale gangs which are linked in a loosely affiliated chain or simply opportunistic individuals in certain communities who advertise their services on social media. There are some links that are stronger or more prominent than others, but overall the chain is formed by multiple players. On some routes, individual smugglers need to maintain their good reputation for repeat business, but other others do not. Often the smugglers only know, and have contact with, the adjacent link in the chain.

Chains of diminishing trust

Smuggling therefore comprises diverse networks that become more dangerous the further the migrant or refugee is from their place of origin. If the place of origin is where the initial contact between the would-be traveller and smuggler is formed, the relationship may be respectful and decent: the smuggler may be known in his or her community and by the families of those being smuggled. It is once the journey starts and as those being smuggled are passed on to others that the trouble often starts: the “chain of trust” degrades4 as their journey takes them into new territory under the aegis of new, unknown links in the chain. It is here that severe violations including death/murder can occur. Perhaps there is a spatial aspect to violations where those smuggled increasingly represent commodities and their humanity reduces in the eyes of those dealing with them, whether they are smugglers or state officials. Evidently, after starting with more benign brokers, those smuggled are soon being rough-handled by people indifferent to their fate and intent on maximising their profits and taking whatever liberties they choose. This may take place in lawless countries in conflict such as Yemen and Libya services Safe transit across border but equally in countries such as Egypt, Mali and Sudan, where the authorities may collude with smugglers.

Graph 10. From the Mixed Migration Review 2018, page 127.

Smuggling works

Being honest about smuggling also entails recognising that, despite everything, smugglers mostly deliver on their promises. There are no hard statistics, but aside from those who perish along the way, are kidnapped or trafficked en route, are detained and/or deported, or who turn back (few in number) or decide to stop for some time along the way, most migrants and refugees do get to where they want to.5 And it is the smugglers who make it possible for most of them. Some 56 percent of 4Mi respondents said they agreed with the statement that smugglers helped them in achieving their goal of migrating to another country, including 14.9 percent who said they strongly agreed (see Graph 10). Moreover, as shown in these graphs, 41.7 percent of all respondents describe their smuggler as a professional smuggler and 31.2 percent as a travel agent. Only 9.2 percent describe their smugglers as criminal. Still, respondents also indicate they were misled by their smugglers about a number of crucial aspects of the journey, including the conditions of travel (27 percent), the routes (25.5 percent), cost (28 percent), safety and security along the route (17.7 percent) and conditions and regulations in destination countries (14 percent).

So one way or another, and often with terrible stories of violence, exploitation and near lethal experiences, migrants do arrive — and often close to where they wanted to arrive. The smuggler model delivers. Shrugging their shoulders when asked about violations along the way, this is also the response of many smugglers interviewed: smuggling works, their customers are satisfied, and that is how it continues. For the smuggled refugee or migrant, the relief of arrival is immense. The point of arrival may be the start of a new and long journey but arrival itself represents, in many cases, the pay-off of a major and risky individual and familial investment.

Angels and demons

While this article focuses on the significant abuses for which the smugglers are responsible, it recognizes that smugglers are also considered vital to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking refuge and opportunity. For many they may be protectors, saviours and heroes, and many migrants who are successful may encourage their friends and relatives to use smugglers to achieve their aims. The truth is they have little choice. But for those interested in the protection of life and application of rights, the crimes of smugglers should also not be minimized or overlooked.

Whether blame for these crimes lies with migrants themselves or on the restrictions states impose on irregular migration — thereby increasing its attendant risks — is open to debate. The answer is probably a bit of both. What is clear is that, whatever additional efforts governments make to curtail smuggling, and whatever the reputational costs of such efforts, and no matter how successful governments claim these efforts are, smugglers and migrants will always find ways around them.6 Governments in destination states are unlikely to ever generate sufficient capacity or protection for migration (or the requisite political or public will) to meet demand, or to render legal migration options viable enough to dissuade people from using smugglers. Until that changes, smugglers, be they benign travel agents or callous exploiters — be they angels or demons — will always find a ready market for their services.


1. Horwood, C. (2018). ‘Devils and Angels’ Unpublished conference paper presented at Border Deaths Conference, Amsterdam. June 26th, 2018.

2. Horwood, C. (2018). ‘Devils and Angels’ Unpublished conference paper presented at Border Deaths Conference, Amsterdam. June 26th, 2018.

3. The term ‘forced overcrowding’ is used here because many migrants tell of being coerced into overloaded and/or unsuitable boats at gun point or under the threat of violence.

4. Van Liempt, I. (2007) ‘Navigating borders: Inside perspectives on the process of human smuggling into the Netherlands’ Amsterdam University Press.

5. This assumption is based on the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have reached (and continue to reach) countries of destination in comparison to the number reasonably assumed (albeit without detailed data) to have been abandoned or to have to curtail their journey.

6. While Australia contends it has curtailed smuggling with its ‘stop the boats’ policy, its use of off-shore processing and its partnerships with South East Asian countries to prevent departures, evidence suggests that smugglers are turning to smaller craft and less travelled routes, with the associated increased dangers of both. See Benson, S. (2017) ‘People Smugglers Downsize to Beat Barricade’ The Australian.