This article presents the argument that there needs to be a ‘reality check’ regarding States’ responses to migrant smuggling. It examines the shift in public discourse on migrant smuggling to Western Europe and Canada in the past two decades and argues that public discourse has leaned increasingly, and dangerously, towards the need to criminalize migrant smuggling.
The article is based on a doctoral research project conducted in the Netherlands and a master’s thesis project conducted in Canada. The projects both investigated migrant smuggling; the data collection involved interviews with smuggled migrants. The authors explain that the reason for comparing the two sets of data is the limited empirical information on how immigrants experience and perceive migrant smuggling. In the Netherlands, 56 smuggled migrants were interviewed, and seven smuggled migrants were interviewed in Canada. A primary difference in the data is that origins of people interviewed. In the Netherlands study, the majority of interview respondents were asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, Iraq and the former Soviet Union. In the Canadian project, five of the seven interviewees were from Colombia (via the United States) and the others from Afghanistan and Africa. The authors found commonalities in the smuggled migrants’ narratives and experiences; both studies found a diverse range of actors involved in the smuggling industry and revealed a nuanced discourse around migrant smuggling that includes humanitarian types of migrant smuggling.
The article deconstructs current discourse on migrant smuggling through three critical elements: i) boat arrivals, ii) high fees and bogus asylum seekers and iii) the involvement of organized crime. This discourse, combined with migrant smuggling cases in Western Europe and Canada, has influenced changes in policy and law and led to the increasing criminalization of migrant smuggling. The criminalization of migrant smuggling has serious side effects for migrants. It has resulted in greater caution from Western States regarding the identity of migrants; there is greater emphasis than ever on legal identity and the quality of identity documents considered acceptable. This has led to increasing levels of suspicion and to greater numbers of migrants being detained and for longer periods of time. Increasing emphasis by authorities on finding out who the smugglers are rather than determining whether migrants need protection turns smuggled migrants into a group of people who are alleged to be implicitly dangerous rather than a group of people who may need protection.
The authors believe there is a need for a reality check and a more nuanced understanding of migrant smuggling. They argue that the narrow, State-centred focus on migrant smuggling does not provide any credible insight into the root causes of why migrants may need migrant smugglers and overlooks the possible side effects of the securitization of migration on the protection of refugee claimants. The article concludes that only by examining the real life experiences of smuggled migrants can scholars fill the gap on the existing knowledge on migrant smuggling.
The strength of the article is the information derived from the interviews conducted with smuggled migrants, which lays bare the contradiction between the popular discourse and asylum seekers’ actual real-life experiences.