The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Profit isn’t always the main motive of migrant smugglers, explains Tuesday Reitano, stressing that the term encompasses a much wider range of roles than that of the callous exploiter, as depicted by much public and political discourse.
You’ve written that human smuggling is a business in which “the marketplace is human aspiration”. Could you elaborate, and comment on the prevalence of human smugglers globally today?
There are a growing number of people aspiring and seeking to move, find their lives in new places, seek employment, seek safety and generally with a very fair desire to craft themselves hopes and dreams with the world as their oyster. Meanwhile, they are being very much challenged or controlled by a prevailing desire to see less irregular migration, and particularly in the developed world, and across the northern hemisphere. It is very notable how the US, Australia, and the European Union are all simultaneously seeking to reduce the number of people able to enter their countries through both legal and illegal means.
Those aspirations for movement and changing lives, improving lives, are resulting in a greater wave of irregular migration. But people are having to move on their own reconnaissance without the legal protocols and supports. So what you’re seeing happening is the smuggling system becoming the travel agents for irregular migrants, in the same way that legal travel agencies would work for those who have the right to move. They do everything to support people on the move, from arranging transportation, helping them to connect with their families, to find employment, to take difficult journeys. In all of the communities where irregular migration is quite commonplace, the smuggler is ubiquitous.
To human smugglers, it seems the categorical differences the international community applies to people who move for different reasons are irrelevant as long as they get paid. Do you agree?
Not all smugglers are equal. While it’s a catch-all term, it describes an enormous number of people who facilitate irregular migration. I don’t think it is fair to universally say that to all smugglers the motivation doesn’t matter. We’ve interviewed many smugglers who say that they are doing what they’re doing because it’s a humanitarian need. They know that people are vulnerable, particularly in war zones… They feel that the imperative of helping people get to safety, or get out of the situation they’re in, is entirely why for them it is a necessary and rewarding profession.
And it may not be about money at all. We also see, often, smugglers who will take migrants to places because they feel that they need to help or they need to get them where they’re going, particularly if there are women and children involved.
I struggle a little with the overwhelming characterisation that this is a profit-driven, exploitative, or potentially abusive business. It often really isn’t. And increasingly now, we are seeing people who shouldn’t be falling in the definition of smuggler and being prosecuted as such.
Are you saying smugglers differentiate more than we think and, if so, does this reflect in the pricing structure related to smuggling?
Yes. I know that most smugglers are very, very attuned to the opportunities that the migrants may or may not have and they calibrate their business accordingly. They know in detail the ins and outs of asylum policy in different places and where and when a migrant might have the best chance of making it. And I’m talking very much on a global scale here, having done interviews on what the British like to call “organised immigration crime” in Pakistan as an example. The smugglers are recommending which migrants would have the best chance of making the journey and then being given some kind of legal status at the end. It’s the same reason why smugglers used to suggest to Ethiopians that they would be better off claiming to be Eritreans because of the higher rate of acceptance for Eritrean migrants than Ethiopian ones.
I think smugglers are extremely cognisant of who’s making their journey and why, and what risks and benefits they may have as a result of their nationality or ethnicity or motivations. We have seen in our interviews that they do adjust their prices according to what they see as the merit of the journey and the risk, so those riskier journeys are charged more for. So not all migrants are equal to a smuggler, by any means.
A colleague of mine has just finished a study on detention in Libya and we saw that as migrants were entering a detention centre they are literally triaged by nationality, because they have the potential to pay a higher or a lower fee depending on where they’re from. West Africans were the bottom of the pile, whereas East Africans were considered a good potential source of additional profits.
Has a blind eye been turned to government collusion with smugglers? And do you think this will have to be addressed if any progress, however we define it, is to be made?
Smuggling is a phenomenon created by states where the harm of the irregular journeys and the potential to profit and exploit people on the move has also been created by the decisions and the framework set up by states. As a trade it is 150 percent enabled by state actors all the way along, whether it’s the providing of fraudulent visas, whether it’s turning a blind eye at customs or taking bribes from smugglers to allow vehicles to go on. It’s only really in the few places where there’s minimal state presence that a smuggling journey is completed without the complicity of state actors.
Corruption is always the elephant in the room in the conversations around international assistance, and I think it’s very hard to ask a state for collaboration and at the same time accuse them or their officials of complicity. But there are many uncomfortable, unanswered compromises in the irregular migration debate; this is only just one of a long list.
What about policy makers and others who repeatedly conflate human smuggling with human trafficking? Is this deliberate? And if so, what does it serve?
I don’t think it’s universally deliberate. I think in many cases it’s on a weak information basis and a recognition that the two are often interrelated crimes, that there is a higher risk to people on the move irregularly to be trafficked than in other contexts. And I think the largest form of human trafficking – labour exploitation – is most likely to happen in congruence with irregular mobility.
The regret in too quickly conflating them and continually putting them in one bag is that you end up then taking the steps of assuming that all smugglers should be treated like potential traffickers, which is largely unwarranted. It ends up applying a set of criminal justice solutions, and often quite securitised criminal justice solutions, to a problem where it is neither warranted nor optimal as a response. And it does also legitimise securitisation entirely.
So, I would say there are some cynical aspects to doing so, and I’ve written as such, but I would say broadly, particularly in the media, the use of human trafficking/human smuggler is a relatively common short-hand and in some cases a lazy mistake.
But with the level of premeditated exploitation and abuse that we’ve seen by some smugglers against certain mixed flows, do we have a problem with the definition anyway? Is it being stretched to its limit on both sides, of the smuggler and the trafficking analysis?
Yes. Where the conflation is far more realistic and relevant is in labour migration and the use of agencies who facilitate labour migration for domestic employment and for construction and other things; the trafficking and migration nexus is strongest there. But the conflation, in contemporary terms, is being used with people running across borders illegally, which I think is largely relatively nonsensical. There are exponentially more people moving with employment agencies and being exposed to risk of trafficking, than there are informal border crossers. I like the term “aggravated smuggling”, to describe that exploitative industry.
Overall, our definitions of human trafficking are quite weak and not very useful. They encompass too much, they’re too unspecific, they tend to assume the same sets of responses regardless of the type of trafficking. So I think human trafficking needs a little bit of a reality check as a policy doctrine.
Do you think since the heyday of human smuggling in 2015 and 2016 the flows have significantly reduced, and that it’s looking quite different now?
I’d say those days are largely gone, but that doesn’t mean the days of smugglers are over. The higher the border controls, the more securitised the discussion becomes, the more profits the industry will be able to generate, because the desire hasn’t changed, you’ve just made the journey harder. People still want to move, they will still seek out ways to move, they will need a smuggler more than they ever did. And those smugglers who are prepared to facilitate and who can successfully support a journey in an environment with such combative border control will be the most professional illicit border crossers, which are organised crime.
If the fight against human smugglers is successful, isn’t this also going to reduce the capabilities of those with no other option to move? Is this one of the contradictions of combating human smuggling for those trying to protect the rights of those on the move?
Regardless of the motive, whether it’s to understand better what’s happening even for those with a strong [desire] to protect and enable irregular migration and maintain the rights, nothing of that is served by the development of highly exploitative criminal networks. And nor is it well-served, frankly, by the kinds of out-ofcontrol levels of irregular migration where you see thousands and thousands of people on the move at the same time. That wasn’t good for anybody. It was neither good for the migrants, nor was it good for the host countries, countries of transit, countries of source. I think that, for me, was something that we should be seeking to avoid.
The mass movement of irregular migrants that smuggling has facilitated has proven a gift to the right wing and populist politics, and we are in a place now where it has become abundantly clear how powerful a political instrument the control over irregular migration can be. Whereas human smuggling was just largely looked upon as an ancillary crime which was relatively irrelevant – a little sister crime in relation to human trafficking – now, it is so potent as a political and economic force for illicit actors, to just continue to treat it in that way and overlook it is naïve and quite dangerous for the public discourse and the people on the move.
How would you characterise this securitisation of migration? Is it occurring only in the global North, or are you seeing it elsewhere around the world?
I think the politicisation of migration isn’t new and isn’t restricted only to the North. It is a fundamental nasty, bigoted undercurrent of every society, and that you see as much across the Northern Triangle, across Latin America, and across Africa as you do everywhere else. That’s the fear of foreigners and the desire that they wouldn’t just keep showing up on your doorstep. The politicisation of irregular migration control is also quite universal. Gone are the days where we felt we had an obligation to support the poor and the needy of our neighbours.
As a case in point, one of the hugest displacement phenomena of the last year has been Venezuelans coming out of Venezuela, and their neighbouring states have been so welcoming or supportive. Because the problem is that irregular migrants and asylum seekers now just overwhelm states’ coping systems in a way that is very hard for many states, which are fragile or struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens, to address. The default answer to preventing irregular migration is [now] border control, it’s ratcheting up the level of securitisation of borders, building more border posts, putting scarier people on them. This is the only answer that seems to be in the tool box for the majority of policy makers. They can’t come up with anything else because anything else is too slow.
So do you think this securitisation is set to become a long-term trend?
I suspect that like all cycles to almost all security threats, it starts with a massive ratcheting-up of militarisation, partly because it works in the short term and it puts on a good show for displeased audiences at home. We are all appeased by seeing more enforcement on the border, we’re appeased by seeing warships dispatched into the Mediterranean because we feel like something is being done.
In addition, there’s definitely a plentiful private sector lobby and interest group here to encourage thinking in the direction of enforcement because it profits them. But for many, life is becoming unsustainable in a lot of countries in the world, due to climate change and violence, and people are going to have to move.
If current restrictive policies against migrants and refugees continue, do you see a rising demand for smugglers and mobility?
Definitely. I think it’s inevitable now. Just taking climate change alone, parts of the world in 10 years are going to be uninhabitable. Or at least certainly very hard to sustain life. People are moving. And they’ll keep moving towards the places with the highest quality of life.
You’ve written about the impact of the collapse of the “smuggling bubble” having much wider reverberations with economy and security. Can you elaborate?
Well, take Agadez, in Niger, where smuggling became one of the largest economic generators and a business in and of itself. People were moving to Agadez to work in the smuggling industry, and that was creating jobs and livelihoods. And at the behest of the European Union, with Niger functioning as one of the primary transit states towards Libya, all the effort was put on closing that hub down. All the efforts that were focused on promulgating a new anti-smuggling law have been applied only in Agadez. And while there is still some smuggling industry in Agadez, it’s not that it’s gone completely: there are still “ghettos” and meeting points and transactions taking place. It has significantly quietened that down. And the people who came [to work as smugglers] have now gone elsewhere to find a living, including into artisanal mining, and they’ve set up shop in other places. Broadly, that whole mechanism has dispersed. We’re seeing a lot of return migration from Libya as the sea routes have closed off, so there’s just simply less opportunity. So people are beginning to think about going home. There is nothing there to facilitate that journey in a way that there had been before.
It’s often said that it’s impossible to stop irregular migration, but hasn’t the experience of the last three years – with the significant reduction of new arrivals in major destinations globally, whether it be Australia, Europe, even North America – shown that to a large degree it can be stopped?
I think it can be stopped across specific border crossings. The cooperation between Mauritania and Spain to prevent what used to be quite an active far west Mediterranean route… It is pretty much gone, closed down. So you can definitely stop specific routes. I think you can reduce irregular migration down to very low levels, along specific corridors, but I don’t think we can ever stop people moving irregularly and, as routes close, some will be deterred, [but] not all.
Many will look for new routes or take different alternatives. What I do see, though, is that the networks are becoming more professional, more effective, even as controls are going up. And that people are becoming more desperate and prepared to take more extreme journeys and pay large sums for them. They do not see the hardships suffered by other migrants necessarily as deterrents. So I think if you take the global perspective, irregular migration can’t be stopped.
According to many, the war on drugs has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Meanwhile, migrant smuggling is being increasingly criminalized as a new war on smuggling opens up. Are we on the wrong track? Should irregular migration be regularised?
I think both of these are unwinnable wars. The harm from the war on drugs came as much from very securitised responses as it did from the harm of drugs themselves. The problem is that drugs do cause harm, some of them a lot of harm. But we did not focus ourattention on the drugs that cause a lot of harm. For moralistic reasons, the original focus on the war on drugs was drugs indiscriminately. And so we securitised a debate around something that was essentially harmless, or relatively harmless, and treated all drugs as if they were the same.
And I think this is the same mistake with irregular migration, or at least the war against smuggling, in that there are irregular migration flows that we should enable and encourage in many ways, that are resilience mechanisms that allow people to circulate that don’t cause any particular stress to any of the communities in that circular migration route. And I just think we should leave them alone. And the more you try and build up border controls, for fear that one micro-fraction of a percent of the people on the move might be terrorists, which is usually what begins the desire to increase border control, the more you securitise the entire migration flow. We have to be more intelligent and nuanced.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see the future as dystopian or utopian?
I dream of an optimistic scenario. I fear that the path towards dystopia seems to be very set. And I don’t see enough political will or understanding to take the difficult and long-term and massive cultural changes that would be required to prevent it. I find the way climate change is framed right now points to a very short death sentence, and we are rushing towards our execution, our arms open.
 The origin of the term lies in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’s Palermo Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which refers to the “aggravating circumstances” that sometime accompany human smuggling.
 In the context of human smuggling, especially in Agadez, a ghetto is a compound or dwelling used to accommodate refugees and migrations between different legs of their smuggled journey.