Is there such a thing as a victim of smuggling? No, and here’s why: First, let’s remind everyone what smuggling is:
“Smuggling of migrants” is defined 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 – United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (Smuggling of Migrants Protocol), supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
So basically, smuggling is a violation of a country’s migration policy. It is an illegal border crossing organized by someone else – the smuggler – for a price. This means that the victim of the crime of smuggling, technically speaking, is the state, not the migrant who pays for this “service”.
Does this mean smuggling harms no one? Or that migrants who are smuggled do not suffer abuse and violence?
Absolutely not. We know that many migrants suffer assault, rape, extortion and a range of other abuses while being smuggled. Which means those migrants may be victims of other crimes, not of the smuggling itself.
Why do some actors continue to refer to “victims” of smuggling?
Sometimes, this terminology is used (despite not being technically correct), to recognize the high levels of vulnerability faced by some of the migrants who pay smugglers, which is abused by the smuggling rings. The fact that some migrants feel they have no other choice but to face the danger and risks of a smuggling process is sometimes related to inequalities, lack of opportunities, poverty, discrimination and other factors, which can be recognized in some cases as structural violence. Thus, the combination of the other crimes suffered by some smuggled migrants along the route together with the high levels of vulnerability that lead to them paying to be smuggled is sometimes highlighted through the use of the word “victim”.
If we’re not in a legal context, why not call them “victims” of smuggling? What’s the harm?
Because many smuggled migrants are victims of other crimes and need assistance, it is important to be clear in our terminology. It is essential to be able to find those smuggled migrants who are in need of support, assistance and protection, because they have suffered rape, extortion, or some other specific crime. If some anti-smuggling actors refer to all smuggled migrants as “victims” while others do not recognize that some migrants who use smugglers are victims of related crimes, neither group will effectively be able to screen and support those who actually need help.
Our goal must be to recognize the violence and abuse that takes place in the context of smuggling, and find ways to prevent and respond to it.
More resources on smuggling of migrants:
About the author:
Rosilyne Borland is the IOM Senior Regional Thematic Specialist on Migrant Assistance at the Regional Office for Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. She has 14 years’ experience in international and has specialized on issues related to the human rights of migrants, particularly trafficking in persons and health, and return migration. Rosilyne holds a Master’s degree in International Human Development from the School of International service of American University.