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The social politics of migrant smuggling


Apart from being a type of transnational organized crime, migrant smuggling is a social phenomenon. That is, it relies on a network of individuals and resources, whereby partnerships are established with a view to ensuring success for all participants. Primarily, there is a transactional relationship between migrants, who aim to arrive safely and quickly in the destination country and remain therein, and migrant smugglers, who aim to maximize profit in each smuggling venture and, at the same time, maintain the reputation of their enterprise. The relationship between migrants and smugglers may be characterized, in addition to the material aspect of it, by personal links (for example, through family, friendship or membership of the same ethnic group or community).

Importantly, smuggled migrants are not a homogeneous group. Their profiles will vary according to multiple factors including the geographic regions they come from, their motivations for migrating, their financial circumstances and other personal attributes (see ' Mixed migration flows'). Data indicates that most smuggled migrants are young persons, with many being underage. This might be explained by the fact that the population in many developing States (countries of origin) is composed of over 50 per cent individuals aged 14 or under. Many smuggled migrants also come from communities where migration is incentivized as an opportunity to find employment and improve living standards (UNODC, 2010b). In other cases, smuggled migrants are refugees who have no other choice but to resort to the services of smugglers.

Migrants' social and educational background will likely impact on the logistics employed in smuggling ventures. While migrants from prosperous backgrounds are more able to travel in safer and more comfortable conditions (for example, via air with high quality fraudulent documents and a lower risk of interception), poorer migrants often resort to cheaper and more dangerous forms of smuggling, usually at great personal risk. Of course, in immediate situations of war and violence individuals might be compelled to escape in hazardous conditions independent of their respective financial capabilities.

Much of the literature concerning smuggling of migrants analyses the phenomenon as a financial enterprise or security threat. In these contexts, migrants are conceptualized as objects trapped by criminal networks, with little active role. This approach focuses on the organization and modus operandi of the smuggling venture, with no or little attention dedicated to the agency of migrants themselves (Salt and Stein, 1977, as cited in UNODC, 2010, p. 477). These authors divide the smuggling process into (i) recruitment of migrants in origin countries, (ii) the transportation of the migrants from origin to destination countries and (iii) integration into destination countries. Other sociological research on smuggling of migrants emphasizes the experiences, motivations and agency of migrants in the smuggling process (Van Liempt and Doomernik, 2006, p. 166). The smuggling venture is, at least partially in most cases, a result of the choices of the smuggled migrant or, as is often the case, his or her community. In some West African countries migration is part of social identity (UNODC, 2010, p. 42). It is a vehicle for prosperity and a way to escape poverty and marginalization. As such, migration receives the blessing of familial and societal leaders. Family expectations regarding the destination country might also have a significant impact on the behaviour of smuggled migrants (Bilger, Hofmann and Jandl, 2005). The financial capabilities of migrants will also influence their power of control over the smuggling venture.

Some academics are of the view that migrants' control over the smuggling process is more directly linked to their respective level of integration in their communities, both at home and in overseas diasporas, and whether there are ethnic links between them, other migrants, and smugglers (e.g. see Zhang, Sanchez, Achilli, 2018). Migrants may also be more isolated during the smuggling process, with exchange of information between migrants and smugglers limited to loose contacts or casual telephone conversations, with rumours and hearsay playing a significant role in the decision-making process (UNODC, 2010, p. 41).

Notwithstanding the above, migrant smuggling is not only about the relationships established between smugglers and smuggled migrants (with indirect influence by other parties). Family and friends are important actors given that, very often, they are the investors and sponsors who together raised the smuggling fees and expect a return on their investment. Likewise, the relationships between smugglers and individuals who are bribed (for example, workers at airport check-ins and persons at security and boarding controls in countries of origin, transit and destination) are critical in the process.

The role played by gender, ethics and socio-cultural factors may also influence behaviours in the context of smuggling of migrants. For example, women with very few rights or facing serious threats of violence and abuse in their homes might consider that they have little to lose by migrating irregularly and facing the dangers inherent in smuggling ventures. A precarious situation in the destination country might be deemed far better than conditions existing in the country of origin. The role of women in the country of origin might very well have an impact on the level of vulnerability she will be exposed to. For further details, see Module 13 on Gender and Trafficking in Persons/Smuggling of Migrants.

Box 6

The 'costs' of illegal migration are not the same for men and women. Men engage more in high-risk, expensive migrations, but the profits from these endeavours are likewise assessed to be high. Women engage in low-risk migrations that are less costly, while their low visibility and smaller chance of deportation reduce these costs even further.

Schrover, Marlou and others, Illegal migration and gender in a global and historical perspective , Introduction
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