Global perspectives on people smugglers
24 Oct 2017| and

Early on 2 September 2015, 16 Syrian refugees on a remote Turkish beach hopped onto a small boat built for eight passengers. Each had paid a people smuggler around US$6,000 for passage from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. Among the passengers were Abdullah Kurdi, his wife Rehana and their young sons Aylan and Galib. Four kilometres into the journey, the boat sank.

The next day, images of the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, face down on a Turkish beach, spread virally across the world. An image showing a Turkish official carrying the boy, Aylan Kurdi, from the beach soon followed. Within hours, the pictures became synonymous with the Syrian war and provided a human face to Europe’s migration crisis. The photos sparked a global response.

In the days that followed, several media outlets began reporting that Aylan’s father, Abdullah, was in fact the captain of the boat: he was allegedly a people smuggler. Moreover, he was accused of steering the boat at the time it capsized. For many, Abdullah was transformed from grieving father to evil people smuggler.

However, several facts remain. Abdullah had lost his family while trying to flee war, to find a safe place for his wife and children. In all the media coverage, and the associated political commentary, the complexity of the people-smuggling problem was lost or ignored. Public opinion had reduced the people-smuggling phenomenon to a simple equation: ‘People smugglers are evil.’ The alternative perspective on this sad chain of events is that it’s symptomatic of the complexity of today’s global people-smuggling and migration policy challenge.

Today ASPI released its latest strategy report, People smugglers globally, 2017. The report draws together the work of authors from multiple disciplines to explore the worldwide phenomenon of people smuggling. Much has already been published on irregular migration from the perspective of the migrant, but ASPI’s latest strategy focuses on people-smuggling syndicates globally. It provides a concise analysis of the various operators in the world’s people-smuggling hotspots, with accompanying policy recommendations for interventions.

The demand for irregular migration services is rising dramatically in source and transit countries across the globe. Limited economic opportunities caused by such factors as ballooning youth populations, endemic corruption and unskilled labour surpluses are creating waves of irregular economic migrants who, under normal circumstances, have no likelihood of being accepted into formal migration programs.

Declining security conditions in Syria, Afghanistan, Central America, North Korea, Iraq and Iran are also creating mass migration crises of a magnitude that we’ve not seen since the end of World War II.

Unfortunately, destination countries’ refugee and migration programs can’t meet the demand from those who want to migrate. Out of these fundamentals rises a growing demand for alternative migration pathways.

In Australian political and policy circles, there’s no ambiguity in the statement ‘People smuggling is a crime’. For most Australians, the prevailing perspective seems to be that, regardless of the people smugglers’ motivation or role within a syndicate, people smuggling is a criminal activity. However, in many countries, irregular migrants and their communities see people smugglers in a much more positive light. They’re perceived as offering a service that allows their customers to access a product that would otherwise not be available to them.

In Africa and the Americas, people-smuggling operators bring much-needed, and otherwise unavailable, income into the community. In such places, even when people smuggling is criminalised, there’s no guarantee that the views of the community or irregular migrants will change.

The report finds that the decentralised yet globally networked nature of people-smuggling activities, fuelled by unprecedented global people movements, ensures that this challenge will continue to be highly resilient in the face of policy interventions. However, through analysis of the organisation of those networks, as provided by this report, policymakers can develop a better understanding of the various contextual elements of people-smuggling operations that are vulnerable to disruption.

ASPI’s report makes the following recommendations:

  • The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission should consider preparing a public assessment, similar to the Organised crime in Australia reports, on people-smuggling syndicates and routes in the Asia–Pacific to further inform the public policy debate.
  • The Australian Border Force and the Australian Federal Police should enhance their management of serious crime methodologies for operational and investigations decision-making with a framework that ensures that lessons learned, intelligence, and emergent research on disruption impacts on people-smuggling networks are considered more frequently.
  • The Australian Government must continue to create a credible counter-narrative to try to prevent people from endangering their lives through participation in dangerous maritime travel through the ASEAN region.
  • The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the ACIC should work with the Five Eyes law enforcement group to establish a virtual taskforce to target people smuggling’s professional facilitators.
  • The Joint Standing Committee on Migration should undertake an inquiry into how ABF and AFP operational activity is disrupting irregular migrant channels.
  • DIBP should develop policy measures that continue to undermine trust in people smugglers along the length of Australia’s irregular migration routes, with a particular focus on less vulnerable cohorts of irregular migrants.

Even when people-smuggling ventures are halted, as in the case of Australia, there remain a large number of irregular migrants who, for their own safety and for economic reasons, are willing to engage in high-risk activity to get to their desired locations. Without supporting policies, the underlying pull and push factors for irregular migration continue and success against the smugglers remains fragile and fleeting.

Without doubt the Australian position on arrivals is under substantial international, political, legal and public pressure. If any of those factors change the Australian policy on settlement, arrivals are likely to increase.