The war of words in the politicisation of human smuggling

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Chris Horwood is a migration specialist and co-director of Ravenstone Consult.

Declaring war on human smuggling continues to be a tool used by politicians and policy makers as a way to implement otherwise unpalatable and possibly undefendable migration decisions. This essay looks at both sides of the argument, compares findings with widescale migrant surveys and suggests better approaches.


Of all the words used in mixed migration discourse, the most misused and politicised may be those used in the realm of people smuggling. Here, the newly coined terms “self-smuggling” and “state-sponsored smuggling” have recently been added, expanding the lexicon and illustrating the prevalence of deliberately using terminology with political intent. This essay will review the use and abuse of contemporary smuggling conceptualisations and compare polemicised perceptions of smuggling with the findings of over 85,000 surveys of refugees and migrants conducted between 2014 and 2021 by 4Mi, MMC’s data-collection initiative. First, the main contrasting narratives will be summarised before a deeper discussion and review of research findings are presented. Finally, a brief discussion on solutions to the issue of irregular migration and an alternative approach to anti-smuggling is offered.

The smokescreen: smugglers as criminals

To those who want to redirect attention away from the causes of human mobility along with the needs and rights of those on the move, the fact that smugglers are ubiquitous in the phenomenon of mixed migration is both convenient and useful. Smugglers conveniently become the target of policies and usefully become the causation explanation for irregular movement itself. Even better when those smugglers can, with a seemingly innocent interchange of terminology, also be framed as human traffickers and thereby perpetrators of a more serious crime against people, as opposed to smuggling which can be characterised as a crime against the state.

The media’s frequent elision of smuggling and trafficking may be the result of ignorance more than intent, although after years of reporting on irregular migration they really should know better. However, governments’ and state officials’ reframing of smuggling as trafficking or conflating their activities should be assumed to be deliberate, designed to focus on the crime itself and support deterrence policies rather than focus on those wanting to move and their needs, rights, and aspirations. The emphasis is on smugglers as unscrupulous and organised predators of people who would otherwise not dare to venture on dangerous and irregular journeys. The term smuggler is conferred upon anyone involved in facilitating irregular movement, including those making humanitarian attempts to assist migrants and refugees along their way for whom additional criminal censure has been developed.

Demonisation and felonisation or criminalisation of smugglers is commonplace in national and regional policy briefs. States regularly issue rallying calls for united robust action against what are often portrayed as “international criminals”. The accompanying claim that to protect migrants or refugees from violation and exploitation smugglers must be suppressed, is often a crude and cynical ruse to distract from the greater objective, which is of course to stop irregular movement. It is a claim extensively used in North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania, most notably by Australia.

The Australian government is well known for pulling no punches on immigration issues and commonly uses the combined smokescreen of migrant safety and lawfulness, stressing it is “committed to protecting Australia’s borders, combating people smuggling in our region, and preventing people from risking their lives at sea”. It has implemented its approach effectively through the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders since 2013, although allegedly its “creative” tactics have also included paying maritime smugglers to turn back with their human cargo.

In April 2022, influenced by the Australian model, the UK announced it had reached a deal with Rwanda that asylum seekers rejected by the UK would be relocated to Rwanda for potential asylum application as an alternative—an arrangement that for some has questionable legality. That same month, Denmark revealed it was holding discussions with Rwanda with similar intentions. Introducing the new policy, the British prime minister justified it as the way to stop “vile people smugglers” turning the sea into a “watery graveyard”, when clearly it was an act by an exasperated government unable to stem arrivals of cross-Channel migrants in small boats as part of its pledge to “take back control of illegal immigration”. In 2021, over 28,000 irregular migrants made the short journey across the English Channel—mostly in small rubber boats without the offending smugglers on board—and at least 44 people died or went missing in the attempt.

In Europe, criminalisation of smuggling is exemplified in the Renewed EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling 2021-2025. Adopting combative language in its whole-of-route approach—with terms such as eradication, dismantling, fighting against smugglers, and the disruption of criminal businesses—the action plan is more unequivocal than its 2015-2020 precursor. Now, “migrant smuggling is a cross-border criminal activity that puts the lives of migrants at risk, showing disrespect for human life and dignity in the pursuit of profit, and undermines the migration management objectives of the EU and the fundamental rights of the people concerned.” When seen alongside the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum and as a reinforcement of the EU’s security strategies and anticrime drives, this action plan leaves little doubt that the EU’s intent is to prioritise the securitisation and weaponisation of all smuggling aspects in mixed migration. This is evidenced in the most recent mandate of Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, with its omission of life-saving search and rescue in the Mediterranean and emphasis on “the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks”.

The sanitised: Smugglers as service-provider saviours

The biases of those attempting to restrict and contain mixed migration are countered by others who prioritise the rights and needs of those on the move. In their contrary narrative, the documented exploitation and violations caused by smugglers is downplayed or overlooked and smugglers are framed as a disparate group distinct from organised crime who merely facilitate the travel needs of those already committed and/or compelled to move. Here, smugglers may even be performing an elevated, revered function in a “moral economy” by providing services that “save” their relatives and fellow community members. One researcher following Syrian refugees found “the relationship between the smugglers and the migrants appeared to be rich in solidarity and reciprocity and grounded in local notions of morality”. They are part-saviour, part-hero, or at worst a necessary and sometimes tricky vector needed to take the refugee or migrant out of harm’s way. As explained in greater detail below, for the most part they do not instigate, persuade, or coerce people to take dangerous journeys; instead, they respond to people’s demands to be assisted in mobility. It is a consensual agreement. In this view of the world, it is the state, with its policies, borders, obstacles, and security apparatus, that forces people to move irregularly with smugglers and that thus causes the dangerous and exposed situations where refugees and migrants suffer and perish.

Recent conceptualisations

In a more recent extension of conceptualisations of smuggling, the terms self-smuggling and state-sponsored smuggling deserve comment. Tunisians simply organising their own irregular migratory journeys have been described as practising self-smuggling in what appears to be a reluctance by some to delink migration from more criminalised and securitised terminology.

State-sponsored smuggling emerged into public discourse in late 2021, when Belarusian authorities encouraged and assisted thousands of migrants and refugees to transit their territory in order to enter the EU. The action was part of Belarus’ efforts to get attention from the EU through deliberate irritation in what can also be categorised as a belligerent form of migration diplomacy. It was essentially a political crisis played out on the migration chessboard with refugees and migrants as the pawns. Additionally, the bellicose language around the issue is illustrated by NATO accusing Belarus of conducting a “hybrid attack” against the EU. In this case the term state-sponsored smuggling is more accurate in describing the deliberate conduct of Belarusian authorities. But commentators and governments describing what happened as state-sponsored trafficking would likely be over-stretching or mis-using the term, although arguably, it also involved deception, manipulation and endangerment—also hallmarks of trafficking.

The need for nuance and distinction

Both arguments above may be distorted and exaggerated by the underlying ideology or policy positions of their proponents. The reality is more complex. The heterogeneity of the characteristics of irregular mobility in terms of motivation, means of movement, routes taken, and risks experienced has been illustrated through extensive research and monitoring in the last decade, as detailed below.

The fact that so many of those moving irregularly use smugglers should not negate the importance of distinction and nuance in our understanding and characterisation of migration and smuggling. There is a risk that simplistic narratives lead to inadequate responses. The wide variety of migration experiences—and by extension the speciousness of simplistic narratives—comes into to focus when we compare refugees and migrants who:

  • cover huge distances, such as crossing the Sahara, travelling from Pakistan to Europe, or crossing most of South and Central America to enter the US, with those who move short distances, such as into South Africa from neighbouring countries, or Venezuelans migrating and fleeing to Colombia and Peru;
  • spend just a few hours crossing the English Channel, or the Bab-el Mandeb Strait from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, with those who endure weeks at sea travelling from Bangladesh to Malaysia or East Timor and Australia;
  • take two years or more to reach their destination, such as many Nigerians heading to Italy, with the mere 20 minutes Syrian refugees in Türkiye need to across the Aegean to Greece;
  • take relatively few personal risks, such as those who fly from various Asian countries to North America, or from Afghanistan to Malaysia, with people who are driven or led on foot across land borders, for example from Eritrea into Sudan and Egypt, into the US from Mexico, or out of Cambodia, Myanmar, or Thailand;
  • can purchase fraudulent documents (passports, visas etc.) from smugglers with those who cannot and so travel undocumented;
  • travel through war zones such as Yemen or Libya with those who do not; and
  • move through lawless lands where corruption is endemic, or where violations by state officials and criminals is commonplace, with others who transit countries where the rule of law and protection is better applied.

Equally heterogeneous are people’s interactions with their smugglers. Some use a single smuggler for their whole journey or a specific leg of their journey, such as crossing obstacles or border points where smugglers have deals with state officials or know routes to circumvent officialdom. If they fly with smuggler- organised documentation, or take to the seas with a smuggler-organised boat, they may have almost no direct contact with their smugglers at all, while those on long multiple-country land routes have prolonged interaction with different groups of smugglers. Researchers generally agree that using multiple smuggling groups as people move further from their point of origin and their initial smuggler often leads to greater neglect and abuse. Along some routes, the agency and freedom of choice of those on the move is high, while on others they are dominated and almost captive to their smuggler’s decisions and treatment.

Smugglers themselves are a heterogenous group, spanning the whole gamut from responsible guides with close community or ethnic ties to their charges, to outright criminal opportunists who predate on those they smuggle. At one extreme, smugglers may perceive and carry out their work with a moral and pious fastidiousness while others may be unscrupulous exploiters, heedless of their clients’ lives and wellbeing in their pursuit of money and other personal “benefits” (sexual, labour, power, etc.). Characterising smugglers as either angels or demons is simplistic and not useful in this discussion. Nevertheless, the fact that smugglers are often negligent and responsible for violations towards their clients gives further ammunition to those demonising and sanctioning smuggling in order to restrict movement.

Given that smuggling is made up of a wide range of functions and activities, the question of who exactly is and who is not a smuggler becomes relevant. Drivers, food and drink providers, safe house proprietors, boat captains, guides, look-out people, recruiters of clients, informal bankers, false documentation suppliers and corrupt state officials etc. are all part of the smuggling ecosystem. But are they all smugglers? In some cases, whole sections of a town’s or village’s economy are linked to human smuggling, facilitating tens or hundreds of thousands of people in transit annually. Obock in Djibouti, Agadez in Niger, Izmir in Türkiye, Tijuana in Mexico, and Tripoli in Libya are obvious examples.

A wealth of survey data

Since 2014, MMC’s 4Mi data-collection programme has surveyed tens of thousands of refugees and migrants on different migratory routes around the world through a network of field enumerators. Where possible, smugglers have also been surveyed. The vast majority of 4Mi respondents use smugglers for part or most of their journey. Along certain routes, smugglers’ frequent perpetration of heinous crimes, including rape, trafficking, murder, and brutal extortion, is commonly reported. Some egregious smuggling/trafficking cases in the recent past, such as the plight of Eritreans in Sudan and in Egypt’s Sinai, have ended or shifted to other locations, but too often smugglers are closely associated with violations of people on the move. They are not alone: state officials and criminal gangs are also common perpetrators of violations and deaths, and in some cases more guilty than smugglers, but there is considerable variation across different locations.

For example, 26 percent of Venezuelan 4Mi respondents migrating and fleeing to Colombia and Peru, and 14 percent of refugees and migrants surveyed in Mexico, identified smugglers as perpetrators of abuse. Meanwhile, almost a half of the Afghans arriving in Italy who were surveyed said smugglers were the most common perpetrators of a range of violations, and 77 percent of Rohingya women and children who reported protection risks on the journey to Malaysia said smugglers were the main perpetrators. In various other reports, Ethiopians who cross to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and those who finally escape the migration trap that is Libya, speak of repeated and brutal abuse by smugglers and others in situations where the separation between smuggling and trafficking is tenuous.

A high proportion of 4Mi respondents report that their smugglers intentionally misled them about their journey (in relation to cost, route, length, risks, violations, hardships, etc.) Survey data from Italy shows only a small minority of respondents who had used smugglers reporting the opposite, that they were not misled. At the same time, a high proportion of those smuggled agree that their smugglers actually facilitated them getting to where they wanted to go, although again, the findings vary by location, route, nationality, and available financial resources. There is a strong suggestion of a link between those with insufficient funding and increased abuse at the hands of smugglers.

The acceptance or resignation by people on the move that risk and even lethal misadventure may occur when using smugglers and embarking on migratory journeys has been documented for years. Some suggest that “…exploitation is, at times, consciously and willingly endorsed by its ‘victims’ as a means to enhance their own mobility” in a context where, “smugglers often constitute the only available option for those migrants who flee a situation of immediate danger and distress”. While not suggesting smugglers’ violations are in any way justifiable, the evidence points to a complex mixed migration phenomenon full of contradictions and heterogeneity. There is also an evident irony that more stringent border policies and practices are doomed to fail because they bolster the very phenomenon that they claim to counter.

Responding to migrants’ agency and demand

In today’s migratory context, smugglers are in high demand and are thus less likely to actively drum up custom than be sought out for their services. As such, far from being the calculating seducers of passive populations in precarious circumstances, evidence suggests they have limited influence in migration decision-making. The real agency comes from migrants and refugees themselves. 4Mi surveys repeatedly indicate that decisions to migrate are primarily influenced by family and friends, returnee migrants, and those who successfully made it abroad; moreover, a significant proportion take the decision alone. Generally, but not everywhere, only a small percentage of surveyed migrants suggest their smugglers were the main influences on their decision to migrate. Indeed, analysis of almost a decade of 4Mi data concluded that “the role of smugglers as those who encourage, and fuel irregular migration is overestimated in public and policy discourse”. There are exceptions: Nigerian women surveyed in Niger, Libya, and Italy, for example, reported that smugglers were in fact the biggest influence on their decision to migrate.

Smuggling dynamics do not occur in a vacuum. Three important factors are that, first, they often occur in and exacerbate contexts of endemic corruption. There are numerous reports and statistics showing engagement and collusion of state officials with smugglers (and traffickers). Second, the immigration policy environment in many countries with limited asylum space and very restricted regular entry pathways means people are forced into irregularity by various means. Third, the central drivers for migration and refugee secondary movement remain entrenched and are evidently increasing due to the socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and unequal global development and opportunities. In other words, the compulsion to be mobile is as high as ever.

Going to war or finding solutions

There are clear parallels between the long-standing international war on drugs and the “war” on smugglers, which is in fact an indirect or proxy war on irregular migration. Arguably both wars are unwinnable, especially for democratic open societies. Countries such as Israel and Australia could argue their zero-tolerance policies have worked, but others would point out they merely illustrate the balloon effect of displacing migrants to other destinations without reducing the overall number of those on the move globally.

Even so, many current policies (de facto and de jure) dealing with irregular and smuggled migration breach international agreements and conventions and have little basis in international law or, in some cases, national laws. The Mixed Migration Review’s regular feature, “Normalising the extreme”, offers numerous examples.

The war of words and the politicisation of human smuggling accelerate in tandem with more restrictive policies to curtail irregular migration. Emphasising the so-called root causes of migration is a close cousin to deploying the scapegoating terms around smugglers found in this war’s political armoury. Such emphasis seeks to simplify migration and negate the important influences of globalisation, inequality, and climate change. If the intended goal is the suppression of smuggling networks and thereby irregular migration, security measures can be effective only if accompanied by other solutions.

Solutions will inevitably need to concentrate on reducing demand for smugglers more than criminalising and restricting supply. Alternative, or at least complimentary, approaches need to be considered and implemented not only from a pragmatic perspective but also, arguably, from a moral and rights-based perspective. A huge effort to consider factors directly related to drivers of migration in the context of global development resulted more generally in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and specifically in the 2018 Global Compact for Migration (and its sister compact on refugees).

Of particular relevance here, signatories to the GCM committed to:

  • minimise the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin (Objective 2);
  • enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration (Objective 5); and
  • strengthen the transnational response to smuggling of migrants (Objective 9).

Since the end of 2018, when the GCM was adopted by 164 nations, there has been little evidence of progress made on the above three objectives, except that of strengthening responses to smuggling. In particular, almost nothing has been done to significantly enhance legal and regular pathways for those who wish to migrate.

Furthermore, since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, various short-term initiatives and fast-track policies have been implemented, but these have the hallmarks of emergency reactions to Covid-19 rather than of longer-term approaches. They include a degree of regularisation of irregular migrants in some countries, the release of migrants from detention centres, and fast-tracking the residency rights of foreign health professionals to allow them to contribute to the fight against the disease. Conversely, the wider range of obstacles and restrictions facing refugees and migrants during the pandemic were substantial, increasing hardship for those on the move globally while also causing extraordinary scenes of reverse migration involving millions of people. Arguably, the pandemic will have long-term negative impacts on migrants and refugees, making achievement of the GMC objectives even more elusive in the medium term. Since the GCM was agreed, there has been little evidence that international migration has become safer, more orderly, or more regular. On the contrary.

But the solution to the irregular migration/human smuggling nexus is found in the various clauses of the compact, which need no re-invention, only implementation. Inter alia, Objective 5 elaborates on how to enhance pathways for regular, non-smuggled migration through diverse means including through greater regional and cross-regional labour mobility. The objective details ideas for international and bilateral cooperation arrangements, such as free movement regimes, visa liberalisation or multiple-country visas, and labour mobility cooperation frameworks as well as skills- matching programmes and fast-tracked visa options for employers. The provision of humanitarian visas, private sponsorships, access to education for children, and temporary work permits are some of the mechanisms mentioned, along with bilateral and multilateral agreements that facilitate academic exchanges, such as scholarships for students and academic professionals.

These and other considered ideas guide signatory states towards enhancing regular migration and offer alternatives to smuggling-dominated irregular migration. But with domestic political trends in several countries tending towards right-of-centre, populist, and even more authoritarian leadership, few politicians there will be seen promoting pro-migrant and pro-refugee agendas too vocally. At the metropolitan level, there is evidence of a rise in mayors’ engagement with immigration and an appetite to offer refugees and migrants solidarity. However, at the national or federal level, more hardline positions are often taken, forcing some cities to declare themselves rebellious “sanctuary” cities.

While the solution to increased irregular migration may be a widespread implementation of the GCM, the reality is that in the short and medium term, rhetoric against smugglers as a proxy for irregular migrants will be increasingly politicised while immigration policies become harsher. If global inequalities continue to increase, exacerbated by the impacts of Covid-19 and climate change, migratory pressures could grow. This in turn is likely to result in higher demand for smugglers, which may subsequently ratchet up restrictive policies that become more normalised and popular in destination countries. It is a vicious cycle where more restrictive policies again lead to more demand for (and more power of) smugglers, etc. in a dynamic where only smugglers are the winners.

Meanwhile, as the war of words continues, states are attempting to further restrict irregular migration and hopeful migrants and refugees are locked in endless opposition and collision. This intractable head-to-head, arguably, will only be resolved when the political will and courage emerges to implement a comprehensive migration polficy, one that includes significantly scaling up legal pathways for mobility, addressing global inequalities and trade imbalances, a functioning returns system, and addressing the real root causes of mobility. It’s a tall order, but until then expect smugglers to continue conducting a brisk trade in a market of continuous demand.