“Migrants and smugglers are the same people”

Tackling the migrant influx means dismantling the myth of the 'evil smuggler' says migration researcher Line Richter. Instead, we must address the conflict and poverty fuelling the demand for human smuggling

Last September saw a large number of refugees and migrants arrive in Denmark. Many were en route to Sweden, meaning they had to avoid being registered by Danish police on the final stretch of their journey. Moved to help, some Danes picked up the arrivals and drove them across the bridge to Sweden.

Transporting undocumented arrivals is illegal, and over 100 Danes have since been charged with menneskesmugling, or human smuggling. They face a fine of up to two years, far less than the ten-year sentence available for those found guilty of menneskehandel, or human trafficking.

Line Richter, a PHD student at the department of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, has found the two terms are often used interchangeably in the debate about migration. But there is a clear difference between the two – smuggling is a contractual relationship whereas trafficking is a criminal exploitation of vulnerable people.

“They facilitate border crossing for payments, while trafficking is about non-voluntary movement. That is the big difference – the voluntary decision to move.”

Richter is one of four researchers working on a project which traces migrant routes from Africa into Europe. She focuses on emigrants from West Africa, especially Mali, who travel through to Algeria, Morocco, and ultimately France. An estimated four million Malians live outside their home country, which has a population of 14 million, spurned to leave by conflict and poverty. Most of these emigrants live in neighbouring African countries and only a minority go onwards to Europe. But as regional tensions increase, more people will attempt the journey to the continent. Smugglers respond to this demand, helping people move between countries, and often financing their own journey in the process.

“There is this illusion that if you stop smuggling, you stop the influx of migrants. But you cannot stop smuggling. You can make it a lot harder, you can crack down on certain people, but new people will definitely come, and the risks will go up – meaning that more people will lose their lives in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea.”

Not that smuggling isn’t lucrative. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), two of the main smuggling routes – one that leads from East, North and West Africa to Europe and the second from South America to North America – generate an estimated 46 billion kroner annually.

Richter says the stereotype that smugglers are exploitative and profiteering does not always ring true. During her year of field research, she worked closely with numerous people involved in the border-crossing business. Many  were also trying to escape conflict, economic or political turmoil and used the business of facilitating border crossings both to earn money to pay for their own journey, and discover less risky journeys than they would otherwise take.

She remembers an informant she met in Paris who had spent a long time moving through the sub-Saharan Maghreb region on his path toward Europe.

“I asked him how long he had stayed in the Maghreb and he said, ‘seven years. That’s not too long is it?’ And I thought, ‘wow, my flight here only took seven hours.”

Before arriving in Paris, Richter says the man had been a small-time smuggler, or ‘broker’ as she prefers to term it. He became increasingly involved in the trade, but abandoned it for his dream of Europe.

“He could have continued if he wanted. He was moving up the hierarchies and then one day, without telling his so-called colleagues, he just left. Many migrants are trapped in transit, and want to leave. Being a broker is not a career as such, and life is not luxurious in the European borderlands, where racism, and a lack of freedom is everyday life. The dream of a better life will motivate them to attempt to cross the border multiple times.”

To be a broker, you need the right connections in the local community, which take time to develop. But just as important, is finding cooperative members of local police forces or government workers. Brokering is really about being connected.

Richter says most migrants find their facilitator through friends and family, using networks to ensure that the person they are hiring and entrusting with their lives is reliable – a good reputation is important.

“A broker with a bad reputation will have a hard time actually finding enough people to fill the boat,” Richter says, adding that she had spoken to a former broker who proudly boasted that he had transported around 3,000 people, while only losing a few.

“For him, it was like his CV.”

The evil smuggler
Richter points out that the Danish smugglers were portrayed as humanitarians by the media, in contrast with the negative associations attached to other types of smugglers. She says it’s because there was no exchange of money involved in the Danish cases.

“We need to dismantle the ‘evil smuggler narrative’ and look at the actual circumstances. I’m not saying that all smugglers are just getting by, and some people are probably really nasty, but many are just responding to a demand created by market capitalism and work with people who voluntarily want to move across borders despite not having the right documentation. The debate is very much framed in terms of the ‘poor refugee’ and the ‘bad smugglers’. But it’s a lot more complex than that. Migrants and brokers are the same people. And how can we have this narrative when the categories are not so distinct? We need to rethink our politics.”

The implementation of increased border controls in Sweden means that travellers moving between Sweden and Denmark must now show their IDs at the border. A similar policy was adopted at the Danish-German border. Within the first 24 hours of this new policy, 11, 000 people were checked. Of those, 18 people were rejected or refused entry to Denmark from Germany.

The Swedish authorities have also introduced a ‘carrier-liability’, which makes Danish train and ferry companies responsible for monitoring and preventing illegal entry into Sweden. DSB must now verify that all passengers travelling from Sweden have shown a valid photo ID.

But Richter argues that closing borders is not the solution to curbing migration. If anything, these restrictive policies are creating more human smugglers, meaning more Danish citizens looking to help will face criminal charges.

“If you really want to diminish migration, then you need to look at the root causes which are conflict, and of course, poverty. It is really important to note that we are also creating the circumstances and we have a heritage and a responsibility. The more borders that we create, the more business there is.”

No going back
Not all migrants are happy with their new lives. Many recent arrivals to Europe have decided to return home, including Denmark where at least 60 have reportedly cancelled their asylum applications after the conditions they faced didn’t live up to expectations.

When asked if she thought that any of the migrants would return to Mali, Richter says that for many it is not an option, unless they have something to show for themselves.

“One guy said to me, ‘We cannot go back, only forward’ in the European borderlands. You can’t go back to Mali without anything in your pockets,” she says, adding that many are under pressure to earn income to send home to their family, who may be stuck in a conflict area or under extreme poverty.

“Remittances are such a big part of the Malian economy. Some people say that it accounts for up to 70 percent of the country’s development aid, or 11 percent of the GDP. Only a fraction of Malian emigrants reside in Europe, the majority live in neighbouring African countries. There are a lot of successful migrant stories in Mali.”

Richter predicts that even if some people return home, the numbers of new arrivals will continue to grow. As long as there is poverty and conflict, we will continue to see people seeking safer places, and people making money by facilitating their travels. M

Features, News

By Natasha Jessen-Petersen

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