Tag Archives: mobility

The “real” transformation of migrant smuggling in the time of COVID-19

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This text first appeared on the Public Anthropologist blog and is reposted here. Gabriella Sanchez is Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the European University Institute. Luigi Achilli is a social anthropologist currently based at the European University Institute.

Photo: Christopher Sessums via Flickr

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, allegations of migrant smuggling networks evolving, changing, and undergoing drastic transformations as a result of the pandemic are starting to emerge. Claims of this kind are not new. In fact, assertions of smuggling undergoing Darwinian transformations tend to follow the aftermath of border closures, ramped-up immigration enforcement controls, environmental catastrophes, civil war, military conflict and the like. The leitmotiv remains surprisingly unchanged amid changing upheavals and tragedies: migrant smuggling is evolving from a cottage industry into one dominated by highly complex transnational criminal networks.

While successfully peddled among anxious publics by law enforcement and policy makers, this recurring representation has consistently failed to account for the available empirical evidence. A plethora of ethnographic studies have dismissed the claim that crises and emergencies empower human smuggling networks by turning them into veritable criminal conglomerates that systematically enslave, kidnap and deceive masses of vulnerable and desperate migrants, especially women and children. On the contrary, a growing body of work has shown how most facilitators of irregular or clandestine migration come together for profit or partner with others on demand, working directly with migrants on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. In other words, those who we typically refer to as smugglers generally perform specific, single tasks conducive of a clandestine journey – transportation, cooking, housing, trekking across a stretch of the trajectory, etc. – for which they receive a nominal compensation to address their personal needs. They rely on their own expertise and resources, which are often quite limited and reflective of their own precarity. In fact, many facilitators are themselves migrants or asylum seekers who became stranded or unable to complete the journeys on their own.

It is presumable that things will not change radically as the pandemic unfolds. There are two dimensions in smuggling facilitation that will be important to follow in the weeks and months to come, which will give us an indication of the response of smuggling networks to the current epidemic. Both are related to the kinds of interactions that emerge among groups that rely on the same geographies in the exercise of criminal activities. We would like to examine them here.

One is market diversification – that is, the notion that actors in a specific market or activity may opt to pursue a different one in order to maximize profits. As we have witnessed in the past, claims of migrant smugglers “venturing” into the smuggling of other commodities or services, or even into radically different activities are commonplace. Our work, however, has emphasized how the protracted precarity of an already precarious group of people often pushes them, rather than into other criminal fields, into activities that lead to their criminalization. Put differently, it is unlikely that given the structure and organization of the market, smuggling facilitators seeking to temporally cope with market adjustments as a result of COVID-19 will morph into criminal networks. On the contrary, it is more likely that increased controls and enforcement makes them and the migrants they transport more prone to detection, apprehension and criminalization.

Why does this matter? Claims concerning diversification, rather than tackling organized criminal activity, have relied on the notion that people can only venture into other criminal spaces. This is, however, hardly the case among people already facing conditions of precarity, which limited resources affect the likelihood of market expansion. Even in the event the possibility of venturing into other markets exists, that is not necessarily in line with what the person may want to or be able to do. For example, Italian cigarette smugglers were reluctant to go into migrant smuggling in the 1990s. To them, losing a person to drowning would never be the same as losing tobacco, which could be easily replaced. In the US, women who worked housing migrants in their homes would return to low-paying jobs in the service industry during times of low demand, rather than venturing into markets like drug trafficking, which carried more stigma and higher risk in case of detection. As changes and restrictions to mobility as a result of COVID-19 responses are lifted, continue or increase, it is also likely that other criminalized actors and the goods and/or services they peddle gain prevalence, and that struggles over territory, clients and resources emerge. And yet, it will be those operating individually or casually in the facilitation of irregular migration, along with migrants themselves, who will be most at risk of being impacted by territorial and market struggles coupled with COVID-19 responses and their migration restrictions and controls, given the disposability of their lives.

A second notion is market convergence. With the term, the relevant literature broadly refers to the coming together of seemingly different criminal markets. Researchers and other commentators have written about convergence as related to migrant smuggling. In the case of the Central America- Mexico-US migration corridor for example, the alleged takeover of migrant smuggling by drug trafficking organizations is taken as a fact. Similar imbrications have also been postulated between smuggling and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. We do not deny the existence of multiple interactions and collaborations among groups. Yet many claims are often based on sensationalist, graphic and even racist depictions that provide scant and simplistic details of the long-standing interactions between transporters and traders along specific geographies, and more specifically of how state security projects have shaped their actions. There is significant evidence of how both state and non-state actors often impose tax-like fees to groups of lesser rank seeking to operate within their specific territory. Arrangements of this kind have been documented as taking place in migrant smuggling on the US-Mexico border, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. Imposing payments and regulations, however, does not amount to groups merging or coming structurally together. Yet the dynamics concerning interactions between multiple groups sharing increasingly policed geographies pose interesting questions for the future, especially if migration dynamics and restrictions related to the COVID-19 response last long or become permanent.

The unspeakable stories of pain and tragedy migrants endure might tempt us to accept at face value the claim that as the direct result of the current pandemic, human smuggling groups will increasingly become more complex, organized and technologically advanced – a notion often summed up with/by the term “evolution.” There is, however, scant empirical data to back up these claims. Here we argue the opposite. If the COVID-19 response brings about a transformation in migrant smuggling, this will not be towards increased complexity and structure, but rather towards further individualization, fragmentation and disposability. We recognize that the pandemic might play a role in the adaptation or form of criminalized practices and on the modus operandi of groups. Yet, we argue that the real transformation of illicit markets lies in the progressive precarization of their actors. In other words, rather than organized, structured networks, we see the further proliferation of individual actors in hyper-fragmented markets. These, contrary to the dominant narrative of criminal networks as off-limits and closed, present weak or altogether inexistent barriers to participation, which yet provide scant if any paths towards the social or economic mobility of its participants. If at all, solutions to counter the spread of crime, and in particular of migrant smuggling in the time of COVID-19 should incorporate alternatives to reduce the precarity of all its actors, and their likelihood of being disposed or discarded through state-sponsored mechanisms like border and immigration controls.

The Weaponization of Killer Trucks: Vehicular Terror and Vehicular Crypts

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This text first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog and is re-posted here.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability. She currently writes on the 22 July Norwegian terror attacks, humanitarianism and lawfare, and digital bodies in aid.

Photo: Kai Gradert/Unsplash

On October 23, 2019, 39 bodies were found inside a refrigerator lorry on an industrial estate in Essex. The vehicle was registered in Varna, Bulgaria, had entered the UK four days before and was driven by a man from Northern-Ireland. The victims – 38 adults and a teenager – were identified as Vietnamese. This incident is just the latest example of vehicle-induced migrant mass fatalities.

Are these deaths accidental, or a result of lethal intentionality and if so, who is to blame? To reflect on the violence and structured immobility practices that lead to these deaths, I take the colloquial term ‘killer trucks’ as my point of departure. I juxtapose the concept’s ordinary use –the deployment of trucks for vehicular ramming attacks – with the regular occurrence of large numbers of individuals being found dead inside trailers, trucks, lorries and vans. I contrast the concept of ‘vehicular terror’ with ‘vehicular crypts’, whereby the cargo areas of lorries and trucks become vaults facilitating stacked burials. I link the notion of a widespread weaponization– the process through which an object that wasn’t a weapon becomes one – of trucks to questions of how we estimate and explain harm and danger. In this post I argue that we must link weaponization, and the type of lethal intentionality embedded in the weaponization process, to broader legal and political structures.

In recent years, commercial transport vehicles have become securitized and reconceived as existential threats through their use in urban terror attacks. Their presence is perceived with suspicion and fear, as urban landscapes are remodeled through bollards and security fencing. In accounts of vehicle ramming attacks in Berlin, London, Nice, Stockholm and New York, the exterior of vehicles—cars, vans, trucks, motorbikes—are construed as having innate qualities of mass and speed that make them inherently dangerous and their presence potentially dangerous. While the use of trucks as conduits for explosives and driving into crowds with lethal intent are not new tactics, the lethality of recent attacks has engendered a narrative focused on the ‘the terrifying simplicity’ of these attacks: we ‘now live in an era of the weaponized truck’ whereby ‘Western audiences are witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of unpredictable violence’. 

I suggest that this narrative of unpredictable danger is ‘good to think with’ when it comes to critically reflecting on vehicle-induced deaths and the ethics of the classification of the dead. When looking at how trucks—by design intended to serve logistical purposes—become lethal objects, or ‘killer trucks’—attention to context is crucial. When accounting for the rise of the ‘killer truck’ as a weapon of terror and destruction, we must do so with a careful view to positionality, materiality and political context. We must ask: what is a weapon? What is weaponization of everyday objects such as trucks; and who is harmed through this weaponization?

My proposition is that these questions enable the deaths of a different set of victims to come into view: During terror attacks, it is the exterior capabilities of trucks and lorries that produce deadly impact. The weaponization of trucks can also be considered through the lens of interior materiality. Here it’s not a presence of lethal factors such as mass and speed but a lack –of human consideration and air but also of legality and mobility rights – that produce lethality. It also makes visible how it is not only instances of individual criminality but also legal regimes governing mobility which produce harm and danger.

The Essex case is not exceptional, but part of a global pattern whereby trucks have become deadly crypts for migrants’ bodies. Examples abound: In 2003, 17 ‘illegal migrants’ from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic died through dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation inside an airtight container of an eighteen wheeler. In 2008, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated inside a truck in Thailand. The surviving migrants were charged with illegal entry. In 2015, in an event known as ‘the Parndorf tragedy’, 71 people were found suffocated at the back of a Slovenian meat lorry outside the village of Parndorf in Austria. The lorry was used by a  Budapest-based trafficking ring which smuggled thousands of people from Hungary into Austria and Germany in 2015.

We must pay attention to how the ‘killer’ capabilities of material objects are configured through the regulatory sorting regimes aimed at people and mobilities. Crypts are ‘an extreme class of the artifacts that form the material culture of clandestine migration’, they are containers forming units with migrant bodies, representing ‘frequently nothing more than a transitional space within a load of cargo.’  Structural factors such as ever stricter and more punitive migration regimes and aggressive counter-terrorism measures force people into cattle trucks, meat trucks, refrigerator trucks, moving vans – and produce the dangers these individuals face inside these crypts.

An important source of danger is time: speed and risk are inherently interlinked and there are different levels of risk involved in distinct modes of transport. The fastest modes of transport – airplanes – tend to be the safest, while the slowest are generally the most dangerous. Trucks and lorries – relatively slow modes of transport –are part of what Ruben Andersson (2014) calls the ‘illegality industry’. The slowness entails migrants being helplessly stuck inside trucks following unpredictable itineraries and being parked or abandoned at remote locations along the routes.

In the Parndorf case, the driver had by accident sealed the doors, so no air could come in. Police telephone intercepts –recorded but not analyzed in time – showed that the Afghan ringleader had later ordered the driver not to open the doors while the migrants could be heard screaming in the back.  The charges in the Parndorf case included charges of human trafficking, torture and ‘homicide with particular cruelty’. According to prosecutors, refugees were ‘often carried in closed, dark and airless van unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman, excruciating conditions’. In June 2018, four human smugglers from Afghanistan and Bulgaria were jailed for 25 years in the Kescemet city court in Hungary.   

While Parndorf, and other smuggling cases resulting in mass deaths, relate to intentional killings carried out by organized crime, the lethal intentionality in these cases is not only that of not opening doors, checking that there is enough ventilation and maintaining a temperature adequate for human survival. When we think about killer trucks, the processes through which they are weaponized and notions of unprecedented danger, we must also consider that lethal intentionality is also what creates migrant crypts in the first place, and that it emerges at the interface of legal regimes governing offenses related to smuggling, trafficking, crime, terror – and mobility.