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

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.

Migrant smuggling networks

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.

Dimensions of smuggling facilitation

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.

The first 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 emphasised 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 criminalisation. Put differently, it is unlikely that given the structure and organisation 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 criminalisation.

Why does this matter? Claims concerning diversification, rather than tackling organised 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 criminalised 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 organisations 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, organised 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 individualisation, fragmentation and disposability. We recognise that the pandemic might play a role in the adaptation or form of criminalised 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 organised, 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.

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