Changing the narrative of smugglers

‘Call them facilitators; they do not see themselves as smugglers.’ That is how Gabriella Sanchez introduced her lecture on the humanitarian nature of migrant smuggling in the Academic Building in Utrecht. Her message was clear: we need nuance in the way we talk about smugglers.

Gabriella Sanchez is the lead of Migrant Smuggling Research at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence. With a background in law enforcement, she is the author of Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (Routledge 2016) and co-editor alongside Sheldon Zhang and Luigi Achilli of Crimes of Solidarity in Mobility: Alternative Views on Migrant Smuggling (2018), a special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Ordinary people
Drawing from empirical work with migrants and the facilitators of their journeys, Sanchez argued that there is no standard type of smuggler. The images we associate with smugglers are often negative. We think of smugglers as hardened criminals, receiving an exceptional amount of money for their services. However, Sanchez demonstrates that smugglers are ordinary people often coming from poor communities and see smuggling as a way to make a living. Besides this, Sanchez addressed that people criminally charged with smuggling are also often family members trying to help other family members. These discoveries, obtained through empirical studies, drive Sanchez to carry out another message than what is usually heard in society.

Sanchez argues that the word ‘smugglers’ implies that the many negative images associated to them are natural, while instead they have been constructed by the need to enforce borders and control migration. The work facilitators will continue for as long as there are no paths for all people to travel legally and safely.

Need for political will
However, changing the discourse is a process that requires time. Academic insights need to be turned into real solutions, in order to make a difference. Sanchez says there is no political will to change the narrative. She also argues that stricter rules on migration will not stop smuggling, but rather will make it more dangerous. But we can start by changing the way we talk and think about the people behind migrants’ journeys. With this persuasive message Gabriella ended her interesting and captivating lecture. The Centre for Global Challenges would like to thank Gabriella Sanchez for taking the time to share her research findings with us.