Human Smuggling: Just the Facts!
A journey with Luigi Achilli
This June, I met the amazing Luigi Achilli of the European University Institute in Florence. This July, I read most of his lifetime research output. This August, I interviewed him on human smuggling, and we had a blast. I asked a lot of hard questions, and Luigi answered them all with good humor.
Selected questions, to pique your interest:
1. As far as I can tell, all of your research starts with you travelling to a remote location to study a poorly-understood subculture first-hand. Is this a fair description? How do you even get started?
6. You’ve stated that you expected to confirm the standard view of human smugglers as predatory criminals. To what extent did you change your mind, and why?
7. “The majority of migrants with whom I spoke did not perceive their smugglers as exploitative.” Please elaborate.
9. You heavily rely on the notion of “moral economy” to explain how human smuggling actually works. How does this differ, if at all, from economists’ idea that business reputation is crucial for long-run profitability?
10. Suppose you did an ethnography of, say, Lidl grocery stores in Italy. Would “moral economy” be just as important as in human smuggling? More important?
12. You say that “control of migration and the safety of migrants are not at odds with other.” This seems false to me. Migration would be almost perfectly safe under open borders: You just buy a bus, boat, or plane ticket and legally go wherever you want. Whenever you move closer to open borders, migration gets safer; whenever you move away, migration gets more dangerous. How am I wrong?
13. You often write as if European authorities’ top priority is to keep migrants safe, but somehow fail to grasp the best way to accomplish this goal. Isn’t the real story that European authorities barely care about migrant safety? I say that the best explanation for their policies is that they have two conflicting goals: to (a) stop virtually all Third World migration, and (b) keep the authorities’ own hands clean. How am I wrong?
14. We’re both familiar with the Catholic migration charity Caritas. When I heard their spokesmen denounce the horrors of human smuggling and illegal migrant labor, I firmly objected, “It’s better than nothing.” They replied, “That’s what the exploiters say.” What do you say about this, Luigi?
15. I also say that European authorities’ desire to keep their own hands clean explains why they so strongly oppose Third World migration in the first place. Even low-skill migrants would be an economic positive if Europe used a Gulf monarchy approach, where migrants are (a) ineligible for government benefits, and (b) work for wages that are very low by European standards but very high by migrant standards. But this looks terrible on t.v. It’s far more political palatable to keep desperate people out of sight and out of mind. Your reaction?
16. A lot of this sounds like neoliberalism to me! Even many free market sympathizers would expect the worst of human smugglers, but you say the market works well. Are you a rare anthropologist with neoliberal sympathies? If not, why not?
17. Illegal markets work worse than legal ones, right? So if you’re optimistic about a major illegal market, shouldn’t you be even more optimistic about legal markets? Asking for a friend.
How did Luigi respond? Answers to all these questions and many more are now on Youtube. Enjoy!