Border Studies Symposium Challenges Smuggling Stereotypes

By Phyllis Jeffrey - What do we really know about human smugglers? Are our impressions based more on stereotypes than facts? On November 3, 2016, the Comparative Border Studies Mellon Research Initiative hosted a symposium entitled “On Containment and Coyotaje: Critical Approaches to Human Smuggling.” The speakers—Gabriella Sanchez of the University of Texas in El Paso and Luigi Achilli of the European University—both challenged dominant narratives surrounding the practice of human smuggling.

In his talk “The Morality of Smuggling: Irregular Migration and Smuggling Networks at the Time of the Syrian Conflict,” Achilli (a research associate at the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) drew upon research he conducted in Syria and the Mediterranean region during 2015. His goal was to turn a critical eye to the relationship between human smugglers, migrants, and the international state system in the context of humanitarian crisis.

As a direct result of the Syrian crisis, 12 million people have fled from their homes, with half internally displaced and the other half having fled the country. While the majority of these remain in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, many travel farther afield—often turning to smugglers.

Achilli’s findings indicate that most smugglers do not fit the assumptions of border security forces and the media. Rather than working in hierarchical, permanent formal organizations, smugglers work in flexible, temporary, non-hierarchical networks. Belying the image of an elaborate network headed by a “criminal mastermind”, most are not mafia-style organizations, but rather ad-hoc set-ups in which the biggest boss is likely to be the person steering the boat.

Altruistic motives

Achilli’s findings also dispel the myth that a clear, unambiguous division separates “victimized” migrants from “exploitative” smugglers. Many smugglers, Achilli found, are former migrants themselves. Partly responsible for this are social networks connecting them to friends and family also seeking to flee. Also a factor is the very precarity of their legal status in Europe, which prevents them from pursuing work in the formal economy. In this way, institutional conditions that seek to limit extralegal migration to Europe may, ironically, perpetuate it.

Smugglers cite altruistic motives, too. Indeed, Achilli observed instances in which smugglers waive fees for children or the infirm. He also recalled at least one smuggler who defined smuggling as religiously-inspired duty or service.

Ultimately, Achilli argued, in order to gain a clearer picture of smugglers and their relationships with migrants, it is necessary to avoid stereotypes. “I’m not saying these [smugglers] are just, good, pious people—but they are not a neoliberal wet dream. They are ordinary people, and people are complex.”

Or, to quote Mohammed, a young Syrian man who crossed the Mediterranean with smugglers and who now works as an interpreter and social worker in Italy: “Smugglers are neither good nor evil. You pay for a service and you get what you pay for.”

Specialized roles

Also emphasizing the role of contingency, social relationships, and happenstance in the practice of coyotaje—people-smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border—Gabriella Sanchez focused on the little-understood (and often ignored) role of women. Like Achilli, Sanchez opened her talk (entitled “Women’s Participation in the Facilitation of Human Smuggling: The Case of the US Southwest”) by presenting some stereotypes. These regard the coyote as unambiguously male, motivated by greed, exploitative, sexually predatory, representative of a transnational criminal enterprise. In this popular narrative, the role of woman is synonymous with that of victim.

Sanchez—associate director for research at the National Security Studies Institute, who based her talk on years of ethnographic as well as legal case research in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands— challenged such stereotypes in relation both to the overall practice of coyotaje and the role of women. Like the Mediterranean networks Achilli investigated, coyotaje is a process based on personal links—a series of steps at which different individuals perform different tasks. It is a trust-based, part-time endeavor involving a flexible array of people.

Women play crucial—and specialized—roles in coyotaje. Receiving, on average, less pay than their male counterparts, women more often trade in social capital. This is true both in the “credentials” that grant them entry to the work (they are known in the local community, often self-employed as hairdressers, shop-owners, etc.), and in terms of what they gain. Payment to female coyotes is often in kind: a favor owed, sometimes subject to a long or indefinite period of deferral.

Some smugglers first “train” their clients to walk in the desert, practicing around a track, before leading them on the grueling desert crossing. Some refuse to take on certain clients they fear are too sick or old, out of a sense of moral responsibility. Sanchez thus offered a complex and nuanced portrayal, far from a simple picture of exploitation.

Solidarity and reciprocity

Both speakers pointed to a need to focus on the role of solidarity and reciprocity in the practice of smuggling—and, by extension, on the agency that migrants exercise, and the resources they draw upon in the face of institutional barriers. While both agreed that exploitation and abuse do occur, assumptions about exploitative smugglers and victimized migrants obscure the way in which smugglers are fulfilling a service based on demand.

Policy measures that militarize borders often result only in increasing the dangers (and expense) for migrants. Achilli drew attention to an increase in migrant deaths from sea-crossings in 2016, suggesting that re-imposition of border controls may well be at least in part responsible. At the same time, Achilli highlighted the paradox that gaining political asylum in Europe is greatly facilitated through arrival by extralegal means.

One migrant whom Achilli interviewed—an Iraqi Kurd who relied on smugglers and eventually obtained asylum in Italy—said, “If I am in Italy now, it is clearly not thanks to Italian democracy, but it is for them [the smugglers].” In the U.S.-Mexico case, Sanchez observed, attempts by American policymakers to draw links between coyotes and transnational criminal networks—especially drug cartels—serves as a powerful political device with which to legitimate calls for a military presence on the border.

Ultimately, human smuggling cannot be reduced to an easy narrative. Although, in Achilli’s words, “we need to find an evil, and it is much easier to find evil outside than inside,” a full understanding will only be possible through a critical focus on migrants, smugglers, as well as states.

Learn more about Luigi Achilli and Gabriella Sanchez.

Learn more about the Comparative Border Studies Mellon Research Initiative.