Human Smuggling is Underrated
The sensationalist view that human smugglers do nothing but “prey” upon migrants is plainly overblown. After all, millions of people successfully reach their destination with smugglers’ help. This couldn’t happen if smugglers consistently defrauded their customers.
Still, black markets normally perform worse than legal markets. The question is: How much worse? Anthropologist Luigi Achilli has done extensively field work to unearth the truth of the matter. Here’s his most-cited study; here’s a quick overview of the evidence.
What Achilli did sounds like a lost adventure of Indiana Jones:
This article builds on empirical research largely based on interviews with and participant observations of Syrian refugees and smugglers held in Southern Italy (March–April 2015), Albania (July 2015), Lebanon and Jordan (September– October 2015), Turkey and Greece (April, October, and December 2015, May– July 2016), and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Serbia (November 2015). The study involved interviews with forty-five men and women formerly smuggled across the Eastern Mediterranean route, and conversations with around fifty migrants — mostly Syrian asylum seekers in Jordan and Lebanon — who were either in the process of being smuggled or considered the possibility to migrate irregularly to Europe. I traveled with some of them during legs of their journey to Europe and sought to shadow their experience. I also conducted twenty-three interviews with border and immigration authorities as well as humanitarians. Perhaps most importantly, I carried out thirty interviews with smugglers who worked, often interchangeably, as organizers, passeurs, lookouts, and intermediaries in Lebanon, Greece, and Turkey. In Italy and Albania, I met and spoke with a number of “retired smugglers” who were active during the so-called Albanian Crisis, between 1991 and 2001. I also had several informal conversations with hotel operators, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and other smuggling market actors along the route who provided their services to both smugglers and migrants. While open and semistructured interviews remained the main and most important mode of my data collection, I also devoted time to participant observation. Since I argue that human smuggling cannot be understood without attending to the interactions between migrants and facilitators, I spent almost three weeks with a smuggling group based in Elgar, a coastal town in western Turkey…
To recruit participants in the Eastern Mediterranean area, I relied on my social contacts in the field and my friendship with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Jordan, obtained through long-term fieldwork in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan (Achilli 2015) and through my involvement in an Italian NGO that worked with migrants and refugees in several countries along the Eastern Mediterranean route and the Balkan corridor. I thus began to meet Syrians and other communities of migrants who had migrated irregularly to Europe, people who claimed to know facilitators. I was able to extend my network of participants to these people’s acquaintances, contacts, and relatives across borders.
Because smuggling is not a frowned-upon practice among migrant and refugee communities, I was able to contact more people who migrated irregularly but also some of their facilitators willing to share their experiences. No part of my field data collection involved concealment or deception. I adopted a series of precautions such as disclosing immediately to my informants the exact nature of my research, emphasizing my disinterest in the minute details of their business, and in general limiting my concern to how smuggling was perceived and discussed by those who were involved and their customers. I did not get involved in any smuggling activities.
What Achilli learned:
These connections reveal how unhelpful the description is of smugglers as cruel and reckless criminals driven exclusively by profits can be. Remarkably, accounts about the callousness of smugglers were often dismissed by those very people who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean. The majority of migrants with whom I spoke did not perceive their smugglers as exploitative. On the other hand, they were vocal in their criticism of the EU failure to live up to the moral and humanitarian ideals it claims to champion. Smugglers offered a way to bypass the inherent shortcomings of a blocked system.
Why do people turn to smugglers? Because it’s a lot more effective than attempts to migrate legally:
With few notable exceptions, all interviewed refugees who applied for resettlement had their application either rejected or left pending for an indefinite time. Mohammed’s story echoes those of Sharif who concurred that European countries did not leave refugees with any other option than to take the illegal route to Europe. The father of two lived in a popular quarter in Amman. As Sharif’s stay in the kingdom was no longer sustainable, he applied for asylum in Sweden. His application was rejected. He then reapplied. He did it three times. All were rejected.
As you’d expect, illegality makes reputation paramount:
It was not enough to be fair and reasonable in business transactions to be considered trustworthy and respectable. The migrants and smugglers who I encountered in Elgar assessed the moral standards of other smuggling groups by the presence or absence of decency and humanity. The importance of being morally respectable (muhtaram) and kind (tayyib) was, interestingly, often stressed by smugglers themselves. As Nader, one of Abu Hamza’s associates put it:
“There are lot of smugglers in Turkey. Already in Elgar there are six, seven groups. Not all are good. Some of them have no good manners with people [the customers]. They forg[e]t that these people are human beings like them. When you do this job, you should remember that you are dealing with human beings (‘insan). If you profit off them [it] is no good. If you scare them [it] is no good. Kindness is very important. Sometimes I meet elderly people that when I shake their hands I can feel the[m] tremble [with] fear. I reassure them. I call them “hajj.” After a while, their mood changes completely; they feel at ease, they are not afraid anymore. … Each of my new shabab [boys] take[s] a course [on] good manners before starting to work with people.”
Achilli is mindful of Social Desirability Bias, but sticks to his story:
Abu Hamza and others like him may have used moral tones to appear righteous in their otherwise illicit activities. It can be argued, indeed, that they spoke in these terms to mitigate their involvement in a difficult and unsavory business. This could certainly be true, but it would not be sufficient to explain the social bonds between smugglers and their clients that I witnessed in Turkey and Greece. My fieldwork in Turkey attests to the centrality of ethics in the lives of both migrants and smugglers as they separate from home and prepare for the journey to Europe.
I suspect that many economists will be turned off by Achilli’s “moral economy” framework. If you read him closely, however, “moral economy” is basically isomorphic to a psychologically-sophisticated reputational model. Business success depends on reputation, and the best way to build and protect your good reputation is to sincerely internalize the value of customer appreciation. Indeed, reading Achilli’s work makes me want to unleash this ethnographer on the restaurant or construction industry. I predict that he’ll discover an even stronger role for what he calls “morality” there.
If you read some of Achilli’s other work, moreover, he sounds just like an economist. Which I naturally mean as high praise:
Politicians, border authorities, and journalists usually portray the smuggler as a cruel and reckless criminal driven exclusively by profits. This understanding, however, offers very little indication of the reasons why smuggling begins or continues in a certain context. The resilience of smuggling networks, amid numerous attempts by nation states and border control agencies to crack down on them, speaks not only of migrants’ determination to flee their countries, but also of the strong bond between smugglers and their customers.
My own research on smuggling networks operating in the eastern Mediterranean confirms the findings of other researchers who have questioned over-simplistic depictions of the facilitator-traveller relationship and their community dimensions. As a matter of fact, smuggling has a rather positive reputation among many migrant communities. Smugglers represent themselves as service-providers who satisfy a need that people cannot satisfy through legal channels. Surprisingly, such self-representation is often backed up by irregular migrants who consider smugglers to be either philanthropists who save others or ordinary people who just want to make some money. In fact, the complex relationship between smugglers and migrants ranges from the altruistic assistance provided by family members or friends to dynamics of exploitation based on the intent of hardened criminals. Empirical research, however, confirms that trust and cooperation seem to be the rule more than the exception in the interaction between smugglers and migrants.
If I ever had to do business with a human smuggler, I’d still be scared. I freely admit it. I would not, however, be scared out of my mind. Illegal markets don’t work as well as legal markets. But they’re better than nothing. A lot better.
P.S. I was able to meet Achilli when I was in Florence. A fascinating character. To see him explain his work on human smuggling, check out this Youtube video:
And if you find Achilli’s work fascinating, this is only one of many of his research specialties. I’ll be exploring his cv in detail this summer.