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When a Crackdown on Smugglers Harms Syrian Refugees

Policymakers have fundamentally misunderstood the migrant-smuggler dynamic along the Balkan Route, argues Harvard College Fellow Danilo Mandić in the Forced Migration Forum.

Written by Danilo Mandić Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Drone images of migrants and refugees arriving in Lesvos island near the beach of Eftalou, between the villages Molivos and Skala Sikamias.Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Exactly a year and a half ago, the E.U.-Turkey deal shut the Balkan Route for refugees from the Middle East. While evaluations of the agreement have been less than flattering, European politicians continue to argue that repression of smugglers around Turkey has been a success.

Alleged anti-smuggler triumphs and lessons from the Balkan Route are routinely used as models for what to do on the (currently urgent) Libya-to-Italy route. Condemnations of traffickers often replace analysis of how the criminals operate, where they come from and what their role is. Instead of identifying root causes in disastrous wars and flawed legal frameworks, many governments have elevated smuggling to the highest priority.

But, as scholars have pointed out repeatedly, the smugglers are a symptom, not a cause. Policymakers – European and otherwise – have fundamentally misunderstood the migrant-smuggler dynamic.

With colleagues at the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies (BCARS), I led a research team to five countries of the Balkan smuggling route that brought more than a million migrants to Europe in 2014-16. We conducted 150 in-depth interviews of smuggled Syrians and 75 interviews with experts in five countries – Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Germany. I gathered data in dozens of formal, informal and semi-permanent refugee camps, urban spaces, border crossings and rural settings.

The study of how anti-smuggler repression harms Syrian refugees (in International Migration) and the nature of migrant-smuggler relations (in Social Inclusion) suggests three counterintuitive points.

First: How the refugees look at smugglers is in stark contrast to how governments, the media and popular culture look at them. Officials see them as cruel exploiters of human misery: criminals, traffickers, predators. Indeed, many policymakers seem to suggest that if only we crack down on smugglers, refugee crises would be solved. Popular culture – including through Oscar-nominated documentaries – glorifies Greek and Italian coast guards and other anti-smuggler agents as saviors from the machinations of evil smugglers.

Syrian migrants have a different view. Refugees, we found, see the smugglers as guides, allies, saviors – people who are getting them out of a deadly place. Given the legal infrastructure, these smugglers are perceived (not incorrectly) as the only means to assert their asylum seeker rights and to achieve safety or family reunification. Cracking down on smugglers, furthermore, has primarily hurt Syrians, not the criminals transporting them. We found that, in adapting to increased repression, the smugglers adapt by putting migrants on costlier, riskier and deadlier routes.

Second: Trafficking experiences were relatively rare among smuggling experiences more broadly (traffickers are smugglers plus coercion and/or deception). Law-enforcement conflates smugglers with traffickers. Both IOM and UNHCR have conceded that the overwhelming majority of Syrians (over 90 percent) have come illegally to Europe via smugglers. But only a fraction of them were trafficking victims. Less than 10 percent of our sample experienced labor exploitation, while more than 75 percent expressed satisfaction and gratitude to their criminal transporters. The in-depth interviews suggest that traffickers were a minor, marginal part of the overall smuggling going on on the Balkan Route.

Third: The data showed that governments, NGOs and other formal refugee-related agents face a serious confidence problem. Refugees trust smugglers – and rely on them for information and other resources – much more than they trust migrant camp officials, government representatives, NGO and aid workers. This created a dangerous dynamic by which the criminals had a monopoly on what many Syrian refugees learned, decided and did.

There is a clear reason for this. In a catalogue of major events during migration, the refugees reported a variety of experiences such as near drownings, forceful detentions, forceful separations, violent injuries and the like. They also reported instances of deception and exploitation. The overwhelming majority of “horror stories” happened at the hands of government representatives: policemen, guards, customs officers and soldiers (most especially, Turkish and Hungarian). Similar “horror stories” at the hands of smugglers were rare and trivial by comparison, as reported by our respondents. It is simply misleading to think that the bulk of the risks to refugee health and life stemmed from the smugglers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This story was originally published by the Forced Migration Forum.

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