The Danger of a Single Story: the Migrant Smuggling Narrative

Gabriella Sanchez

Texas A & M International University

There is a deep-rooted and well-defined set of ideas at the core of the EU’s migrant  smuggling discourse. These ideas’ resilience is evident in the very ease in which  whenever asked about what migrant smuggling stands for, most people can easily  articulate how it is carried out by ethnic mafias and other foreign groups pertaining to  transnational organised crime, and that the thousands of deaths involving migrants  on route to Europe can easily be traced to the despicable actions of the members of  these heinous organisations. 

Many of the responses to the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Survey Report regarding migrant  smuggling echoed these claims. In fact, the narratives of the facilitation of irregular  migration for profit as a crime in the hands of transnational criminal groups, and  the implications this has on migrants’ lives appear consistently in the language that  everyone from politicians to academics to policy makers and civil society use to  describe migrant smuggling across Europe, the Mediterranean and beyond. 

The solutions some of the survey’s respondents made to counter smuggling are also  strikingly similar to those proposed by politicians and policy makers at large. For  example, in the survey, respondents called for the need to dismantle the smugglers’  business model and to counter the spread and influence of the groups behind it  (key components of the EU’s 2021-2025 Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling).  Others argued that the only way to curtail the heinous crimes of smugglers requires  countering the drivers behind migration, and called for the implementation of even  more information campaigns that could communicate to vulnerable and naïve  migrants the risks inherent to irregular migration, another common proposition  made by policy makers. Other responses did make reference to smuggling’s role as a  pressing security issue afflicting cross-border cooperation, and to the need to identify  its impacts on the interactions of countries throughout North Africa and the Sahel with  the EU, yet another recommendation present in policy briefs and research reports.   

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

It would be a mistake not to recognize that migrant smuggling– the facilitation for  profit of the irregular entry of a person into a country different from their own– does  constitute a pressing security issue afflicting Europe and its neighbours in the Southern  Mediterranean. Despite the pandemic, the number of migrants arriving irregularly  to EU’s coasts reached record numbers. An often-quoted Europol-INTERPOL report  (2016) emphasized that most irregular entries by sea into the EU are in fact facilitated  by smugglers. It is also undeniable that many of smuggling’s actors– including those  working for the state– often engage in criminal and violent acts that compromise the  lives of migrants and their communities (Euromed Monitor, 2021). 

And yet, a quick review of the literature on smuggling reveals that these claims and  plenty of the articulated solutions to counter smuggling’s reach have remained almost  intact during the last twenty years. In other words, from the time the very term entered  the international security lexicon, migrant smuggling has been largely articulated as  a form of transnational threat (Kuschminder & Triandafyllidou, 2020) or under the  control of greedy and violent racialised men constituted into gangs (Maher, 2018).  The almost uncontrollable reach of these foreign gangs, we are told, constitutes an extreme threat to the stability of the global north for the other forms of crimes it can  unleash –from terrorism to sex trafficking to the drug trade (Achilli & Tinti, 2019). 

The narrative has proven to be quite dependable, for it has again hardly changed, and  is readily redeployed whenever a tragedy involving migrant deaths occurs. (As this  contribution is being drafted, the world mourns the deaths of at least 27 migrants  who lost their lives while trying to reach the UK from France, deaths that politicians  and academics alike immediately attributed to “ruthless criminal gangs” and their  “business model”). 

Fortunately, over the years many researchers have come forward, demonstrating  that many of the claims long taken for granted in regard to smuggling have in fact  scant empirical backing, tend to exaggerate the realities on the ground, or are simply  unplausible. Irregular migratory journeys, we now know, are not merely the result of  the actions of organised criminals. Quite often we find out that those who facilitate  migrants’ journeys are men, women and children (UNDOC2021a) organised in multiple  fashions (Aziani 2021), at times migrants and refugees themselves having to pay  bribes to other state and non-state actors to use specific corridors (UNODC 2018).  Smuggling facilitators also deploy their own knowledge as long-standing residents  of marginalized communities, and even their own experiences as irregular migrants  on behalf of others seeking to reach destinations elsewhere (UNDOC 2021b). They  do it with the hope of generating an income that allows them to survive, but also  often to continue with their journeys (Achilli 2018). And while their actions are often  depicted in reports from international organizations as yielding enormous profits,  most smuggling facilitators remain living under the same conditions that led them  to become facilitators in the first place, their mobility and income remaining rather  limited aside from registering occasional spikes (Moussaoui 2015). 

While the smuggling’s security narrative has a strong hold in our collective  consciousness, there is also growing recognition of the need to examine the  implications of counter-smuggling policy and practice. Multiple EU counter-smuggling  initiatives, rather than dismantling smuggling networks, have had devastating impacts  on the livelihoods of people within Europe, North Africa, the Sahel and beyond. For  example, a growing number of countries is introducing migrant smuggling statutes  and other initiatives aimed at criminalising the facilitation of migrants’ mobility.  Evidence shows processes of these nature have effectively disturbed when not  destroyed the transportation systems that for decades had allowed people to move  within their countries and to others within Africa (Brachet, 2018). The designation  of the transportation of migrants as smuggling in Niger forced out of the market  experienced, long-standing transporters who feared being labelled as smugglers,  human traffickers or enslavers, while stripping them of their sources of income  (Fakhry, 2021). This led people on the move to have no other option than to entrust  their journeys to less skilled, unreliable agents or facilitators, who in order to avoid  enforcement turned to relying on longer and more dangerous routes, which have  repeatedly been correlated to increases in the number of migrant deaths.¹ 

Researchers have shown that despite the allegations concerning smugglers’  technological sophistication, the core strategies that they rely on for their journeys  have hardly changed– granted, facilitated to a degree by the availability of smart  phones and apps –when and if available (Diba, Papanicolau & Antonopoulus 2019).  Examinations into the law enforcement practice of demanding access to migrants’  social networks on the grounds these can reveal communications with smugglers  that can help dismantle smuggling networks, reveal scant effectiveness. Instead,  it appears that the threat of collecting social media data constitutes more of an  intimidatory tactic against migrants than an effort to curtail smuggling operations  (Dimitriadi, 2021). Ultimately, the risks inherent to irregular migration and its facilitation  can only be countered through the effective implementation of mechanisms that  allow for equally accessible paths to regular, orderly and safe migration for all people  regardless of their place of birth, residence or transit. 

The prior paragraphs do point toward the growing awareness in research and policy  circles of the need to examine the implications that migration controls allegedly  aimed to counter-smuggling have had on the lives of migrants, the communities  they travel through and the facilitators of their journeys – quite often also migrants  themselves. This certainly provides much hope among those who have for a long time  raised concerns over some of the official claims surrounding migrant smuggling, and  opens a path towards accountability (an element to this day not present in countersmuggling  strategy). 

The growth of the critical, empirical scholarship on migrant smuggling and the  analytical eye of increasing numbers of other stakeholders on the implications of  smuggling and counter-smuggling policy and practice is definitely a cause for  excitement. Junior researchers –among which women and scholars of migrant origin  themselves figure prominently—have been at the forefront of calls for improved and  critical understandings of the processes behind the facilitation of irregular migration,  questioning the state-centric discourse that has systematically silenced those at the  receiving end of counter-smuggling policy (that is, not only migrants but smugglers  and those construed as such). 

And yet it is important not to let our guard down. At a time when calls to decolonize  migration research have re-emerged and demands for gender mainstreaming seem  ubiquitous in migration policy and research circles, few researchers and policy makers have raised concerns over the racialized, gendered nature of smuggling  enforcement and discourse (Sanchez, 2018). From its inception in the United Nations  Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, neither migrant smuggling nor smugglers  have been neutral concepts. The very articulation of smuggling as a threat relies on  the construction and on the persona of the smuggler as a racialized and gendered  foreigner. 

Official communications from the EU and international organizations consistently  blame smugglers (racialized as African or Arab men) of deceiving migrants to pursue  irregular migratory channels, of forcing them to rely on dangerous routes or on  knowingly embarking them on means of transportation destined to fail (Johansson,  2021). Smugglers with “Arab” or “African-ness” surnames are also consistently  emphasized the single-handed perpetrators of the quite graphic (if by now rather  prototypical) acts of violence migrants face (Alagna, 2020). There is in fact an  overabundance of all-too detailed texts and images that allegedly seek to document  the violence and abuse migrants experience on the migration pathway. 

However, devoid of socio-political context and of migrants’ own perspectives, academic  and policy depictions of suffering, racialized bodies on the migration pathway reduce  migrant’s experience to voyeuristic representations of black and brown bodies  victimized by no other than people like themselves. This in turn distracts the readers  from engaging in a real critique of how migration controls, and in particular, countersmuggling  become operationalized against racialized groups, exempting states of  responsibility over their roles at creating violent conditions for migrants. 

The troubling nature of racialized depictions of violented black bodies becomes even  more evident in the EU narratives concerning the forms of violence women encounter  in the context of migration. The clear focus of academic and policy literature to  document the forms of sexual violence on the migrationpathway as afflicting only  Black African women, constitutes a stark reminder of the way black African female  bodies have been fetishized for centuries (Holmes, 2016). One must not forget how  black bodies, and in particular those of women have historically been portrayed as  both primitive and mysterious yet sexually available. In smuggling policy and research,  the experiences of black African women on the migration pathway have been  systematically reduced to a handful of highly sexualized and voyeuristic narratives.  Most reports on smuggling and irregular migration in the Southern Mediterranean  depict them as sexually available women, condemned to a life as sex workers, sexual  slaves, or as the voiceless targets of smugglers’ uncontrollable libidos (UNODC,  2021b). Representations strip Black women of any agency or even intelligence, while  simultanoeusly rendering the experiences of non-black woman virtually invisible. 

The hyper-sexualization of black African female migrants in much of the academic  and policy literature on smuggling reduces the possibility of readers to consider the  complexity of women’s experiences in irregular migration, leading them to focus  instead on voyeuristic representations of sexual violence and desire built around black  bodies. At a time when gender is recognized as central to the migratory experience  and a required component of migration-related analysis, the lack of engagement of  academics and policy analysts with the way it is operationalized in smuggling, results  in female migrants’ bodies being rendered ultimately as sexual objects only. The  dynamics and complexities of survival, friendship, love, care and intimacy that are  essential in the migratory journeys becoming trivialized (Vogt, 2018) for their fall out  of line with colonial, imperialistic perceptions tied to women of colour as sexually  available. 

Where can we go from here? Certainly, one answer is not to give up and to continue questioning the impact of smuggling discourse and counter-smuggling policy and practice in communities within Europe and beyond. Another is to demand accountability of the impacts specific to EU counter-smuggling efforts. However, we must simultaneously remember smuggling and counter-smuggling strategies are not neutral in terms of race, class or gender. These are essential elements of the way in which irregular migration is experienced, but also of how it is managed and brought under control. 


1. To this it is important to add that there is growing consensus among researchers that migrants are increasingly forgoing the services of
smugglers unable to afford their costs, and relying instead in collective knowledge and resources to propel their journeys with varying and often
times lethal results. See Arrouche, forthcoming.


ACHILLI, L., & TINTI, A. (2019). Debunking the Smuggler-Terrorist Nexus: Human Smuggling and the Islamic State in the Middle East. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-16.

ALAGNA, F. (2020). Shifting governance: making policies against migrant smuggling across the EU, Italy and Sicily [Doctoral dissertation]. Radboud University.

ARROUCHE, K. (FORTHCOMING). Unpacking Sub-Saharan migration in Algeria: immobility and uncertainty [Doctoral dissertation in process]. University of Leeds.

AZIANI, A. (2021). The heterogeneity of human smugglers: a reflection on the use of concepts in studies on the smuggling of migrants. Trends in Organized Crime. Online First, December 2021.

BRACHET, J. (2018). Manufacturing smugglers: From irregular to clandestine mobility in the Sahara. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 676(1), 16-35.

DIBA, P., PAPANICOLAOU, G., & ANTONOPOULOS, G. A. (2019). The digital routes of human smuggling? Evidence from the UK. Crime prevention and community safety, 21(2), 159-175.

DIMITRIADI, A (2021). Countering smuggling of migrants through social media monitoring: looking for a needle in a digital haystack. In Beyond networks, Militias and Tribes: rethinking EU Counter-Smuggling Policy and Response. Policy report, No, 19, 2021. IEMed.

EUROMED HUMAN RIGHTS MONITOR. EU Funded boats to abusive Libyan coast guard underline European complicity in grave violation against sea migrants.

EUROPOL-INTERPOL (2016). Migrant Smuggling Networks. Executive Summary, May 2016. The Hague.

FAKHRY, A, 2021. Hiding in Plain Sight: Investigating the Blind Spots of Counter-Smuggling Efforts in Niger. In Beyond networks, Militias and Tribes: rethinking EU Counter-Smuggling Policy and Response. Policy report, No, 19, 2021. IEMed.

HOLMES, C. M. (2016). The colonial roots of the racial fetishization of black women. Black & Gold, 2(1), 2.Johansson, Y. (2021) 20 March 2021. Fighting migrant smugglers: have your say.

KUSCHMINDER, K. & TRIANDAFYLLIDOU, A. (2020). Smuggling, trafficking and extortion: new conceptual and policy challenges on the Libyan route to Europe. Antipode, 52 (1): 206-226.

MAHER, S. (2018). Out of West Africa: Human smuggling as a social enterprise. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 676(1), 36-56.

MOUSSAOUI, N. (2015). Le trabendo ou la mondialisation par le marge. Politique Africaine 1(137), 117-128.

SANCHEZ, G. (2017). Beyond the Matrix of Enforcement: reframing human smuggling through intersectionality-informed approaches. 21(1): 46-56.

UNODC (2018). Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants. UNODC.

UNODC (2021a). Women in Migrant Smuggling: a caselaw analysis. UNODC. Smuggling.pdf

UNODC (2021b). Abused and Neglected: a gender perspective on aggravated migrant smuggling offenses and response. UNODC.

VOGT, W. A. (2018). Lives in Transit. University of California Press.