People Smuggling in Afghanistan and Niger: Iatrogenesis and Europe's "Migration Crisis".


With migration, immigration, and human movement as topics of growing international concern, the collective tendency is to misconstrue and generalize certain concepts. This perpetuates a narrative that fits within a predetermined, generally Eurocentric, framework of global understanding. That Europe's social fabric is constantly under siege due to extensive networks of human traffickers and people smugglers from the Middle East and Africa, for example, is an argument that has been used to justify further militarization and heightened security at the expense of border countries. This perception is detrimental not only because it undercuts the abuse suffered by true victims of human trafficking, but by placing people smuggling in the same category, it criminalizes a large swath of migrants and keeps the lines blurred between the guilty and the innocent, who belongs and who does not. Differentiating between human trafficking and people smuggling serves as an introduction to the analysis in terms of policies that address smuggling specifically and how they can be improved.

A 2015 report commissioned by the EU highlights the pervasiveness and relevance of people smuggling in recent years, stating that every one of the irregular migrants who entered the EU that year bought the services of a smuggler at some point before their arrival. (1) Highlighted in this paper are the regions of Nimruz, Afghanistan and Agadez, Niger, which have been used as smuggling hubs as early as the dawn of the Silk Road. Their geostrategic locations as migration intersections allow for already prolific people smuggling operations to truly explode by expanding and streamlining ancient routes and crossing points with modern technology and communication. This comparison seeks to complicate people smuggling as a stabilizing regional industry and to indicate how its expansion connects three continents through human movement.

The comparison between Afghanistan and Niger in this way problematizes the EU's border policies, suggesting a starting point for a solution for migrants and for receiving countries.

In an attempt to discover why and how these parallel migrant flows have bourgeoned simultaneously without interaction or communication between them, as well as the direct correlation between European policies and increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations, it is imperative to note the deep entrenchment of the smuggling industry in both Afghanistan and Niger. Combatting people smuggling with militarization and securitization historically results in instability, triggering a negative ripple effect for migrants throughout the region. The following challenge must therefore be seriously considered: continuing Europe's protectionist border policy and failing to consider other courses of action--in terms of addressing existing smuggling operations specifically--may force the Nigerien and Afghan economies to become even more dependent on the smuggling industry while Europe's migration crisis would not be mitigated in the long or short term. Contrarily, if new policies protecting only European interests are implemented with no viable or sustainable alternatives in either Niger or Afghanistan, the immediate regional effects will be detrimental. This is already evidenced by increasingly fatal border crossings and higher migrant death rates--in 2017, one in forty-two migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe via North Africa. (2) Given that previous policies regarding people smuggling tend to focus on curbing irregular migration in general, this paper argues that short-term action against smuggling, in particular, should recognize the value of local and international collaboration aimed at rendering it a comparatively less profitable profession, while establishing a path to long-term regional stabilization. As a conceptual and comparative study, recognizing the similarities between these migratory flows not only provides a policy guideline that could be beneficial to both countries, but recognizes the inextricable relationship between the EU's border policies, people smuggling, and human movement in terms of mutual intensification.

"Human Trafficking" versus "People Smuggling"

For the purposes of this essay, differentiating and defining human trafficking and people smuggling is paramount, particularly in light of their interaction and overlap. People smuggling itself was only truly analyzed and defined as separate from human trafficking in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (3)

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), human trafficking refers to the coerced recruitment or movement of vulnerable persons through the abuse of power or position with the express intention of exploiting them for profit, commercial or otherwise. (4) Human trafficking can and may be linked to terrorism, but they are not inherently related. The UN has nevertheless noted its increased use by terrorist organizations as a strategy to "spread terror and advance ideology, intimidate populations and decimate communities, institutionalize sexual violence and slavery, [and] incentivize and bolster recruitment." (5) Alternatively, the UN Smuggling Protocol defines people smuggling as "the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident." (6) At the local level, this is usually facilitated through kinship or ethnic ties, regardless of migrants' social status, where exploitation is a risk but not a rule. (7) Smugglers demand a fee in exchange for their services, which is usually agreed upon before travel and is paid after the voyage. Both human trafficking and people smuggling are illegal by UN's standards. (8) They can also both be affiliated with drugs or arms trafficking, however respecting the scope of this essay, those ties will not be discussed.

The consequences revealed by defining these terms are three-fold: one, even though people smuggling can lead to human trafficking that may fund terrorist activities, these are all separate categories complicated by their increased interaction; two, the stigma surrounding migrants and the EU's tendency to emphasize smuggling as a main reason to securitize borders deepens the artificial conflation of migrants and terrorists, leading to support for policies that actually just aim to stem unwanted migrant flows; and three, "protecting" the EU's borders by way of securitization and militarization directly increases the risk of smuggled migrants falling into the hands of traffickers and/or terrorist organizations--the exact opposite of what the EU should encourage. It is a counter-productive strategy meaning to protect the "European" population, yet while attempting to do so, terrorist organizations' and traffickers' profit and expand. If terrorism is one of Europe's true concerns regarding migration, then the EU should seriously consider how stemming human movement has been proven to strengthen such organizations as they are forced to evolve.

"Refugees" Versus "Migrants"

Another differentiation crucial to understanding migration in the regions of Agadez and Nimruz concerns "refugees" as a sub-section of "migrants." A migrant, by definition, is a person that moves from one place to another, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, whether across international borders or within a country. A refugee is a migrant who has crossed an international border and whose claim for asylum has been accepted in a country other than their country of origin; this gives refugees physical protection and legal security from the receiving country. (9) Since becoming a refugee usually represents the ending of a voyage to escape conflict, political oppression and/or persecution, smugglers are not aware of migrants' statuses at their time of travel--nor will refugees, once their claims have been accepted, be obligated to use smugglers anymore as the receiving country arranges their travel. Being a refugee means, among other things, having legal status in another country; being a migrant is much more precarious and, by definition, is a general description of a person on the move. A migrant who may later become a refugee will be subject to the same conditions as another migrant who may not become a refugee given this chronology. Therefore, their labels are categories that do not correspond to a difference in treatment by smugglers.

Ancient Routes, New Borders

As a topic of study and research, people smuggling has a rather short literary history. It is also still quite difficult to find accurate information on smuggled migrants given the multitude of network connections they may make and their deliberate furtiveness to this effect. Significant gaps in knowledge over the last twenty years of scholarship reflect a constantly fluctuating and expanding industry, namely in terms of the level of corruption, money transfer systems, how routes are connected, and the decentralized business model used by smugglers. (10) For example, Toktas barely mentions the extensive, informal money transfer system used by migrants and smugglers in both the Middle East and the Sahel-Sahara region in his 2002 published research 2002. (11) Fourteen years later, Tinti and Reitano note that this anonymous banking system is actually called hawala, which has existed regionally for centuries. (12) For legal and bureaucratic reasons, smugglers and other criminals prefer hawala as it is a cross-border honor system facilitated by family, tribal, and ethnic ties, and there is no paper trail.

People smuggling is hardly a new phenomenon, as human movement is characteristic of both regions in this study. Tinti, Westcott, and Monsutti all mention that the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Niger are historically nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who specialize in transporting...

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