This is the sixth installment of the themed series on Border Criminologies network members. The series aims to present our members’ ongoing research, recent publications, new course modules they might be developing, grants and awards, partnerships and collaborations, and questions they have been considering or struggling with.

Post by Gabriella Sanchez and Luigi Achilli. Gabriella is Assistant Professor of Human Security, University of Texas at El Paso. Luigi is a Research Associate at the European University Institute. 

This last April, we were fortunate to host a group of over 30 scholars from around the world as part of a ground-breaking event on the facilitation of irregular migration. Our event, titled Critical Approaches to Irregular Migration Facilitation: Dismantling the Human Smuggler Narrative was co-sponsored by the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute (EUI) and the National Security Studies Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), sought to reunite the most innovative and critical voices in contemporary academic and policy circles concerning the facilitation of irregular migration. Our goal was to re-energize and advance a body of scholarship that, despite its importance in present global population flows, has remained silent amidst the important academic production in the area of critical criminology and migration, and the focus on migrant criminalization and the implications of border enforcement.

Border Patrol sign in California warning “Caution! Do not expose your life to the elements. It’s not worth it!”, via Wikimedia Commons
Following the event we have a series of goals in mind, starting with that of jumpstarting the contemporary global smuggling studies agenda through the creation of an interdisciplinary and international collective of researchers from the global north and south engaged in the study of migration facilitation. Yet, we had an even deeper objective: to empirically ground a field of research often subjugated by the powerful and graphic narratives surrounding irregularized migrations, transits, and facilitators which have mobilized notions of violence, exploitation and crime as their cornerstones, and in which the state and its actions in controlling population flows are often described either as justified or as carrying ‘unintended consequences’―an euphemism for the disappearance and/or death of thousands of migrants and refugees in transit as a result of enforcement.

The event took place at a time that as organizers we consider critical in migration studies, where despite the vast abundance of scholarship on the lives of migrants and refugees, grounded, empirical work on the processes leading to their journeys―particularly those that are illegalized―and the effects and affects in them interwoven, is still scant and scattered across the disciplines. The workshop aimed not only to be a platform to share findings or details on the operation of smuggling facilitations. It also served as a conversation starter where scholars identified the analytical, theoretical, and methodological limitations and challenges present in the field, and crafted the research agenda for the future.

The journeys that set their course and the social interactions behind migration journeys have hardly been the target of analyses, unless this occurs along the hyper-represented narratives of violence and victimization (which often reveal deep colonial undertones,) or those of labor, as if the motives of those who leave their places of origin were only economic in nature or employment driven. In other words, as scholars we have systematically failed to engage with the topic of the facilitation of irregular migratory journeys and their nuanced motives―financial tensions, safety concerns, friendship, love or emotion, or the mere result of happenstance.  When and if present, criminological interventions have primarily focused on facilitators and their actions from a criminal justice perspective, detailing routes, operational methods, the establishing of dark transnational networks, and the forms of victimization upon which they engage. Furthermore, most scholarship on the facilitation of irregular migration has failed to be critical on the ways it has reinscribed notions of irregularized migrants and refugees as violent and exploitative male criminals, often forgetting the milieu where the smuggler/migrant/refugee interactions take place, and in the process allowing for the further criminalization of the populations many scholar activists so often seek to assist through our work.

It’s in this context that we joined forces to hold an event where scholars conducting empirical and theoretical work on the topic of smuggling could convene. The event was by no means the first; it built upon the work of Rey Koslovsky and David Kyle, Peter Andreas, Ahmed Icduygu, Pedro Izcara-Palacios, Rodolfo Casillas, Khalid Khoser, and David Spener; Ko-Lin Chin, Julie Chu, Shahram Khosravi, Sheldon Zhang, and Ilse van Liempt―to name just a few. Yet the workshop emerged from the awareness of the stagnation of the facilitation processes’ field―same which has allowed for the construction of narrow notions of the migrant, the passeurs/coyotes/polleros/muharrib, their communities, and experiences―and for the need of researchers who drawing from empirical inquiry could make solid, and most importantly, critically contributions in the area of human smuggling facilitation.

For two days, the group worked together through presentations and discussions at crafting the direction of the contemporary global research agenda on smuggling studies. As organizers we did not―do not—perceive this as an unrealistic goal. The workshop gathered the most important voices in contemporary smuggling studies, ranging from senior scholars and junior faculty to budding researchers whose collective work outlines the need for smuggling’s contemporary narratives to be dismantled, revised, and critically analyzed, and, in the process, provide new lines of inquiry. The work discussed in the workshop ranged from the development structural models to understand smuggling to analyses of the role of the state at criminalizing migration as trafficking, and from ethnographic examinations of facilitation in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and South America, to the often underestimated realm of affect in facilitation interactions. The immediate goal of generating synergies was achieved. The next step, which is already in process, is the production of a special issue with an interdisciplinary journal that allows for the inclusion of the multiple perspectives and approaches to the topic of migration facilitation. We’re also considering the publication of an edited volume that compiles a wider selection of the work presented at the event. Furthermore, we seek to grow as a global research collective whose work allows for collaborations across regions and to continue the discussion in a follow-up event on 5-7 April 2017 at the University of Texas in El Paso. We will engage in even more critical and radical revisions of migration scholarship that incorporate and create a dialog with the scholarship from researchers from the global south and   their communities, acknowledging migration scholarship has often replicated the western gaze upon migrants’ lives and bodies. As we collectively move towards this effort, we welcome inquiries pertaining to collaborations and networking, as part of our goal of becoming a research and resources clearinghouse/collective, and together we move towards a more nuanced and globally-informed understanding of irregularized migratory journeys and their facilitation.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Sanchez, G. and Achilli, L. (2016) Looking Back, Moving Onward: Towards the Development of Critical Scholarship on Irregularized Migration. Available at: (Accessed [date]).