by Danilo Mandić

The Syrian refugee crisis has strained our moral intuitions about smugglers. On the one hand, refugee rights have been a staple of the postwar social democratic ethos. From the Vatican to Berlin, forced migrants have been proclaimed the test of European humanism. Even governments with the most egregious migrant policies (at least nominally) uphold refugee rights as human rights. The principles of non-refoulment, freedom of movement, and the right to liberty and safety within refuge countries, continue to be binding. With all its faults, the EU-Turkey deal purports to be in the interests of those fleeing the Syrian civil war.

On the other hand, migrant smuggling remains a dominant means by which Syrian refugees are asserting their rights. Whether we like it or not, criminal mechanisms of forced migration tend to be more effective than state mechanisms. Many refugees do not see the latter as a realistic option. The overwhelming majority of Syrians in Europe have been smuggled. The profits made off them are vast. Thousands continue to seek criminal border-crossings. (Incidentally, asylum seeker rights under international law are in no way abdicated through illegal migration). Thus, in a confusing legal and political framework, and with incoherent government policies in Europe, many Syrian refugees can rely only on smugglers.

In response, major international players have prioritized anti-smuggler repression. Indeed, many seem to believe that traffickers are the root of the refugee problem. If only Europe and its allies could crush the smuggling rings – the thought goes – forced migration would at last be safer.

Sadly, things are murkier.

With colleagues at BCARS, I have researched Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Germany. We have sampled hundreds of refugees across dozens of sites, and conducted ethnographies in every major refugee hotspot in these nations. We expected to hear stirring tales of rescue at the hands of governments, and horror stories at the hands of traffickers. The findings were sobering.

We discovered that smugglers are cherished allies, informants and strategists of forced migration. Refugees trust them, and follow their advice on key migratory decisions: where, how and when to attempt border crossings. In dozens of instances, the principle of non-refoulment was realized by criminals against state border managers. Our interviewees expressed greater confidence in their smugglers than in aid workers and camp officials. Some were endangered by anti-smuggler crackdowns. Many credited traffickers with saving their lives. For good reason.

To make matters worse, we found that reported abuse at the hands of government representatives (soldiers, policemen, border guards, camp representatives) was far more frequent and gruesome than reported abuse at the hand of smugglers. To be sure, traffickers engaged in deception, extortion and coercion. But most risk events – near-death experiences, injuries, thefts, deportations, forced detentions, family separations – were caused by state agents. The smugglers, in other words, are not the primary generator of risk events during migration. Indeed, repressing them often hurts the refugees instead of their criminal transporters.

To be clear: migrant smuggling is a toxic criminal enterprise, exploiting human misery and endangering lives. But we must recognize reality. Migrant perceptions of smugglers are crucial determinants of outcomes. Refugees trust and rely on smugglers. Even as they abuse their customers, smugglers are simultaneously a routine, normal tool by which Syrians assert their rights to life and asylum. Balkan Route countries have failed to eliminate human smuggling since the Cold War, and experts do not expect a reversal in this domain.

The central ethical dilemma is not, therefore, whether to tolerate smuggling in any absolute sense. Rather, it is a question of the extent to which this mechanism can be replaced and made safer.

Accordingly, we propose a bold rethinking of policy. A shift is required from mere repression to strategic pre-emption of smugglers. Syrian families with vulnerable traveling companions should be offered state transportation at prices below black market costs, regardless of legal status. The funds going to smugglers from the pockets of this constituency are immense. Replacing criminal mechanisms of migration with transparent government ones will not only reduce prices, abusive practices and uninformed migratory decisions. It will also squeeze the most lucrative smuggling branch.

This surely sounds provocative. But consider an analogy. In effective drug policy, needle-exchange programs decrease unwanted risks. Policymakers say: “We condemn and criminalize this practice. But if you are engaging in it, please use the following.” A pragmatic and humane policy on illegal forced migration would be well-advised to adopt a similar posture. Failure to do so will advance the suffering of Syrian refugees, not the criminals.

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Dr. Danilo Mandić is a sociologist and College Fellow at Harvard University, where he teaches a course on “Refugees in Global Perspective.” He received his AB from Princeton University and his PhD from Harvard University. With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, he and his colleagues at BCARS have conducted an international study of Syrian refugees in five countries.