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A woman and a man sign documents behind a press conference table. Behind them stand the British and the Rwandan flags.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel (left) and Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta (right) sign a deal on April 14, 2022, that would send some asylum-seekers in the U.K. thousands of miles away to Rwanda. (AP Photo/Muhizi Olivier)

Debunking the myth of the ‘evil people smuggler’

In 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people surpassed 100 million worldwide. Nearly 1.5 million refugees will need resettlement in 2022, but less than one per cent of refugees will be resettled.

Across the globe, the declining rate of refugee resettlement and the absence of legal avenues has forced refugees to use smugglers to cross borders to access refugee protection.

In response to these trends, high-income countries have introduced draconian deterrence measures that prevent people from reaching their territory to claim asylum.

By virtue of their irregular arrival, refugees who enlist smugglers to claim asylum are criminalized and and often pushed back, which prevents them from accessing the rights of refugee status outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The ‘Rwanda Plan’

The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of efforts to deter and prevent refugees from seeking asylum on its territory. The U.K. has an established track record of using draconian measures to deter migrants.

When she was home secretary in 2012, Theresa May stated that her aim “was to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.” She later served as prime minister. Successive governments have maintained this agenda, culminating in the U.K. and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership.

The “Rwanda Plan” involves transferring asylum seekers and migrants arriving “illegally” in the U.K. — such as those crossing the English Channel in boats — to Rwanda, where they will be processed and resettled.

A woman giving a speech from behind a podium
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel speaks to the media after signing what the two countries called an ‘economic development partnership’ in Kigali, Rwanda on April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Muhizi Olivier)

The plan has been widely condemned by international courts, charities, religious groups, celebrities and asylum seekers. The UN Refugee Agency has “firmly opposed” the partnership and re-emphasized that state actions that prevent refugees from reaching destination countries and claiming asylum lead to the shifting, rather than the sharing, of responsibilities to protect asylum seekers.

In her speech on April 14, Home Secretary Priti Patel argued the following:

“Evil people smugglers and their criminal gangs are facilitating people into Europe, resulting in loss of life and huge costs to the U.K. taxpayer. The tragic loss of life of people in the Channel and in the Mediterranean at the hands of those evil smugglers must stop.”

In pursuing its deterrence agenda, the U.K. has shifted the blame for dangerous and deadly journeys away from its hostile policies, toward a new faceless boogeyman: evil people smugglers. By doing this, the Rwanda Plan is presented as a way to protect vulnerable people from smugglers.

Secretary Patel’s comments reflect a strategy that has been adopted by many wealthy nations in response to the rising number of asylum seekers arriving “illegally.” By portraying smuggling as dangerous, criminal and deadly, these nations obscure the role violent borders play in contributing to the conditions under which migrant smuggling proliferates.

Letting nations off the hook

The narrow portrayal of smugglers as evil, greedy criminals provides a convenient scapegoat for governments, policymakers and journalists. The figure of the smuggler offers an ideal boogeyman for our anxious times because they embody an external danger that states can protect citizens against.

By framing the global crackdown on migrant smuggling as a battle between good and evil, wealthy nations hide the role their policies play in creating the global market for smuggling in the first place.

A group of men are escorted by several border force officers in bright yellow vests
Border Force officers escort a group of men thought to be migrants to a waiting bus in the port city of Dover, England, in August 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Instead, culpability for these tragedies is attributed to unscrupulous smugglers, stereotypically represented as “people smuggling gangs” that prey on the vulnerabilities of people on the move.

While it may be politically advantageous to portray smugglers as criminals, and smuggled people as victims of exploitation and abuse, this characterization is disingenuous and serves to rationalize draconian deterrence measures that violate the right refugees have to seek asylum.

The migrant smuggling industry

To be sure, migrant smuggling is a growing industry for organized crime. Smugglers facilitated the irregular transit and entry of roughly 2.5 million migrants in 2016 and made an estimated profit of US$7 billion.

In the pursuit of profit, smugglers often take advantage of migrants and asylum seekers who are vulnerable to violence, theft, sexual assault and extortion. Nearly 50,000 migrants have died since 2014, many drowning in the Mediterranean on risky journeys facilitated by smugglers.

However, the stereotypical accounts of migrant smuggling, based on graphic stories of violence, exploitation and profit maximization, is limited. As migration scholar Lorena Gazzotti states, this portrayal of smugglers as “an inherently deviant, dangerous figure is deceiving.”

Organized crime researchers Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano provide some additional nuance: “It is certainly true that smugglers profit from the desperation of others, but it is also true that in many cases smugglers save lives, create possibilities and redress global inequalities.”

Narrative needs to shift

Organizations like the International Organization for Migration also characterize smugglers in black-and-white terms: “the large-scale smuggling of migrants across international borders is a global threat to migration governance, national security and the well-being of migrants.” They offer their services to help states “disrupt migrant-smuggling operations.”

While signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention are prohibited from punishing asylum seekers for using smugglers to enter a country of refuge “illegally,” refugee claimants who enlist the services of intermediaries are often cast as “bogus refugees.” Those who aid the entry of asylum seekers for humanitarian reasons are also criminalized and demonized by governments as “smugglers.”

Someone holding a sign that says 'Refugee rights are human rights'
Protesters stand outside The Royal Court of Justice in London that will hear a legal challenge opposing the Home Office’s new asylum deal with Rwanda. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

This is illustrated in the criminalization of the evacuation of LGBTQ+ refugees from Ukraine and the criminalization of aid for refugees throughout Europe.

The UN Refugee Agency recognizes that people fleeing persecution are often forced to resort to smuggling. Despite this, the prevailing narrative around migrant smuggling has clouded the public’s understanding of the issue by obscuring the role smuggling plays in helping refugees gain asylum and rationalizing a global crackdown on refugees in the name of combating evil smugglers.