Guest post by Luigi Achilli, research associate in the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute. His research and writing focus on everyday forms of political engagement and disengagement, citizenship, nationalism, the Palestinian issue, refugees and refugee camps, and the politics of space. This post is the fifth installment of Border Criminologies themed series on Human Smuggling organised by Gabriella Sanchez.

I met Abu Rami in a small town on the Aegean coast of Turkey, one of the many human smuggling hubs across the Turkish territory. Although Abu Rami was indeed a smuggler when we first met, he was a refugee too. As with many others like him, he left Syria taking the route to Italy via Libya. However, his journey abruptly stopped in Egypt, where local authorities detained him for a few months before sending him to Lebanon. He tried again. The second time he took the route of the Balkans: Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary. Yet again, he didn’t make it.

While waiting on the western shores of Turkey to be smuggled into Europe, Abu Rami had a revelation: ‘I could not stay there any longer watching my fellow countrymates suffering in Syria or being exploited by smugglers and locals in Turkey. I decided to do something for them.’ Abu Rami became a smuggler, ‘an ethical one,’ according to him. ‘I help [Syrian refugees] cross the sea […]. I charge them much less than any other smuggling group but I give them a far better service: safer boats and better treatment.’ A smuggled migrant himself, Abu Rami knew the basics of the job. And as a relatively well-off person, he had the financial means to set up his business enterprise. The rest was easy. ‘People come to me because they know it is better with me.’ The last time I heard from Abu Rami he was about to quit the business and join his family in Sweden where he wanted to apply for resettlement.

Abu Rami’s story bears striking resemblance with that of Amed, a young man in his early thirties who left Iraq after the explosion of a car bomb almost killed him. Amed reached England through an irregular journey that took several months to complete. However, he didn’t stay there for long: right after finding a job, the British authorities found him residing illegally and sent him back to Greece. Stranded and broke, he decided to build on what he had learned during his transit by becoming a passeur for a smuggling group operating along the Greek shores.

'Coasts': The Mediterranean from a smuggling hub (Image: G. Sanchez)
Amed and Abu Rami’s experiences are far from unique. In my research I often highlight similarities between being a refugee and a smuggler. But what these two vignettes ultimately show is the criminalization of refugees’ mobility and the inherent fragility of their lives. Amed’s story demonstrates how refugees live in a situation of protracted illegality. Abu Rami framed his involvement in a smuggling organization as a way of helping his countrymates, even if others could argue he used moralistic undertones to justify a rather unsavoury business. It was however evident that a considerable and growing number of refugees turned to him looking for help, disregarding official channels of resettlement, which they perceived as ineffective and arbitrary.

Irregular immigration in Europe has generated a widespread range of opinions around the world. Political leaders and authorities conceive the fight against clandestine migration as a war, a war where the evil is represented by the smuggler. The question is: is this war cause worthy? Human smugglers certainly bear responsibility for many of the tragedies we are currently witnessing in the Mediterranean. However, popular representations of the smuggler tend to oversimplify both the clandestine traveller and the smuggler: a process of abstraction that overlooks the ambiguities and nuances of the phenomenon of illegal immigration. What my findings suggest is that the relationship between smugglers and their costumers is far more complex than media and popular accounts suggest, and that both migrant and smuggler trajectories are weaved together by conditions of illegality. Against this backdrop, media and authorities’ obsession with smuggling and smugglers stands out as a defensive rhetorical measure to conceal the EU’s incapacity to manage the current migrant ‘crisis.’ We should instead revisit the criminalization of clandestine migration and the concomitant increasing militarization of borders. Those with little choice to come legally will always turn to smugglers.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Achilli, L. (2015) How to Become a Human smuggler: A Guide for Beginners. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/11/how-become-human (Accessed [date]).