Migrant smuggling is in the news. Governments are taking urgent action, smugglers are abusing laws, companies like Facebook are cracking down. Smugglers are associated with deaths, abuses, violation; they are charged, detained, deported. All the news, in short, is bad, and, to judge by the headlines, smugglers have committed crimes and deserve the worst possible prohibitions.

Is this an accurate reflection of reality? Or does it present a distorted picture?

Human trafficking is trade and transport of humans for the purposes of exploitation. It involves coercion, fraud, deception and abuse. Human traffickers sell vulnerable people into slavery, forced labour, conditions of sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is indeed an exploitative crime, and a crime that deserves all the attention of the media.

Migrant smuggling, on the other hand, is a consensual activity. Migrants and potential migrants pay human smugglers for services including, but not limited to, transportation, accommodation and provision of documents (fraudulent or otherwise). Migrant smuggling does not necessarily involve abuse or exploitation; smugglers may simply act as service providers.

While both trafficking and smuggling are illegal, they reflect different types of violations. Trafficking represents exploitation and abuse of an individual, whereas smuggling is a crime against the state – against border laws. The details of the definitions are in the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its protocols.

Why does this distinction matter?

For an individual on a smuggling route, the difference between smuggling and trafficking is important at the beginning of the route – he or she chose to enter a smuggling route, but did not choose to be trafficked. If a smuggler chooses to abuse a migrant along the route, then the difference becomes less important – abuse is abuse, whether perpetrated by a smuggler or a trafficker. Upon arrival, there is also a distinction – traffickers are likely to continue to abuse and exploit the individual upon arrival, whereas smugglers have completed their role and provided their service.

For policymakers, however, the difference between trafficking and smuggling is important. The different drivers of the two crimes mean they require different policy responses. Because smuggling is driven by a broader variety of factors compared to trafficking, policymakers must contend with a wider variety of opportunities and obstacles. Some examples:

  • Economic factors. Smuggling represents a transaction between a buyer (the migrant) and a seller (the smuggler). When more people want to move, demand is likely to increase, and prices are likely to go up, encouraging more smugglers to enter the market. When smugglers have better connections with each other, the supply side improves, and it is easier to move people across borders. Affecting the economics of smuggling routes – changing the demand for smuggling or cutting off supply routes – are potential tools for policymakers.
  • Cultural factors. Because smuggling is a service, migrants go to trusted service providers. One of the factors that generates trust is cultural ties. Smugglers often have cultural ties to communities that migrate, often arising from ethnic and family links. For policymakers, it is important to recognise that when smugglers and migrants share links, it may be difficult for migrants to report smugglers to authorities, even in cases of human rights violations.
  • Historical factors. Smugglers often have historic links to communities. In Afghanistan, smuggling networks arose out of groups which originally organised religious pilgrimages; these groups were trust community members for many generations. In Ecuador, smugglers are intrinsically linked with communities and arose from long standing merchant (mestizo) households. The historic links between communities and smugglers may also lead to under reporting, not only of smuggling, but also of abuses perpetrated by smugglers.