Critical Perspectives on Clandestine Migration Facilitation: An Overview of Migrant Smuggling Research

Gabriella Sanchez
University of Texas at El Paso

Credit: Prazis/Shutterstock

Critical Perspectives on Clandestine Migration Facilitation: An Overview of Migrant Smuggling Research


Current representations of large movements of migrants and asylum seekers have become part of the global consciousness. Media viewers are bombarded with images of people from the global south riding atop of trains, holding on to dinghies, arriving at refugee camps, crawling beneath wire fences or being rescued after being stranded in the ocean or the desert for days. Images of gruesome scenes of death in the Mediterranean or the Arizona or Sahara deserts reveal the inherent risks of irregular migration, as bodies are pulled out of the water or corpses are recovered, bagged, and disposed of, their identities remaining forever unknown. Together, these images communicate a powerful, unbearable feeling of despair and crisis.

Around the world, many of these tragedies are attributed to the actions of migrant smugglers, who are almost monolithically depicted as men from the Global South organized in webs of organized criminals whose transnational reach allows them to prey on migrants and asylum seekers’ vulnerabilities. Smugglers are described as callous, greedy, and violent. Reports on efforts to contain their influence and strength are also abundant in official narratives of border and migration control.

The risks inherent to clandestine journeys and the violence people face during these transits must not be denied. Many smugglers do take advantage of the naiveté and helplessness of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, stripping them of their valuables and abandoning them to their fate during their journeys. Yet, as those working directly with migrants and asylum seekers in transit can attest, the relationships that emerge between smugglers and those who rely on their services are much more complex, and quite often, significantly less heinous than what media and law enforcement suggest.

The visibility of contemporary, large migration movements has driven much research on migrants’ clandestine journeys and their human rights implications. However, the social contexts that shape said journeys and their facilitation have not been much explored by researchers (Achilli 2015). In other words, the efforts carried out by migrants, asylum seekers, and their families and friends to access safe passage have hardly been the target of scholarly analysis, and are often obscured by the more graphic narratives of victimization and crime. In short, knowledge on the ways migrants, asylum seekers, and their communities conceive, define, and mobilize mechanisms for irregular or clandestine migration is limited at best.

The dichotomist script of smugglers as predators and migrants and asylum seekers as victims that dominates narratives of clandestine migration has often obscured the perspectives of those who rely on smugglers for their mobility. This has not only silenced migrants and asylum seekers’ efforts to reach safety, but also the collective knowledge their communities use to secure their mobility amid increased border militarization and migration controls.

This paper provides an overview of contemporary, empirical scholarship on clandestine migration facilitation. It then argues that the processes leading to clandestine or irregular migration are not merely the domain of criminal groups. Rather, they also involve a series of complex mechanisms of protection crafted within migrant and refugee communities as attempts to reduce the vulnerabilities known to be inherent to clandestine journeys. Both criminal and less nefarious efforts are shaped by and in response to enforcement measures worldwide on the part of nation-states to control migration flows.

Devised within migrant and refugee communities, and mobilized formally and informally among their members, strategies to facilitate clandestine or irregular migration constitute a system of human security rooted in generations-long, historical notions of solidarity, tradition, reciprocity, and affect (Khosravi 2010). Yet amid concerns over national and border security, and the reemergence of nationalism, said strategies have become increasingly stigmatized, traveling clandestinely being perceived as an inherently — and uniquely — criminal activity. This contribution constitutes an attempt to critically rethink the framework present in everyday narratives of irregular migration facilitation. It is a call to incorporate into current protection dialogues the perceptions of those who rely on criminalized migration mechanisms to fulfill mobility goals, and in so doing, articulate and inform solutions towards promoting safe and dignifying journeys for all migrants and asylum seekers in transit.


Author Names

Gabriella Sanchez

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2017
Pages 9-27
DOI 10.1177/233150241700500102
Volume 5
Issue Number 1