Inquiring and writing about migration and smuggling: an interview with Peter Tinti

Luigi Achilli (L.A.): You belong to the most prolific reporters covering conflict, security, human rights, and organized crime issues. I read in your personal website that, in 2013, Action on Armed Violence included you in its list “Top 100: The most influential journalists covering armed violence.” What is it about violence, crime, and conflict that drew you to write about these topics?

Peter Tinti (P.T.): The September 11, 2001 attacks happened during my last year of high school. As someone who studied political science and international relations in college, 9/11 and its consequences were, for better or worse, the backdrop to my entire education. Issues related to conflict, terrorism, and violence by non-state actors were omnipresent.

On a more personal level, the collapse of Mali, a country where I had lived for several years, first from 2008 to 2011 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and again in 2013 as a journalist, was searing. A lot of people, from academics to diplomats to development practitioners to Malian government officials, were heavily invested in the narrative of Mali as a democratic model for the region. And yet, so much of what these smart, supposedly earnest people were saying and writing proved fabulously wrong.

I think both examples, the aftermath of 9/11 and Mali, are what make me inherently skeptical of consensus narratives. I’m always ready to accept that the frameworks we use to view the world can suddenly, rapidly, feel obsolete. The challenge as a journalist, at least as I see it, is to find better frameworks and alternative voices to better understand the world around us.

I think this is particularly important when we think about the current “migration crisis” and migrant smuggling. There is an inherent tension between the urgency and novelty of the moment, what constitutes a “crisis” for the people involved, and the need to place it within a broader, more measured context.


L.A.: Along with Tuesday Reitano, you recently authored the book “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior” (2017 – Oxford University Press). How did you end up writing this book? What are its main goals, its accomplishment, and its shortcoming?

P.T.: The book was an outgrowth of our ongoing research for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, of which Tuesday is a co-founder. I had done some previous reporting on migrant smuggling networks in West Africa before what came to be known as the “migrant crisis,” but the subject matter took on a new urgency with the explosion of the Eastern Mediterranean route in 2015. Tuesday has been examining issues of transnational organized crime and migrant smuggling for much longer, so she already had deep understanding of some of these issues. I was rapidly bringing myself up to speed as I carried out interviews in North Africa, Turkey, the Balkans and Western Europe.

When Tuesday and I set out to write the book, our main goal was to help readers, whether they be the general public or policymakers, better understand the role that migrant smugglers are playing in facilitating the irregular movement of migrants and refugees. While we didn’t think of the book as a corrective, per se, we did believe that many of the prevailing narratives about smugglers and the migrant smuggling industry were not only incorrect, but counterproductive.

I think we succeeded in helping readers better understand how migrant smuggling works, the different types of actors involved, the shape and structure of some of the main networks facilitating irregular migration into Europe. We wanted people to understand that tens of millions of people around the world are living in precarious situations of protracted, indefinite displacement, and that the international community has failed them. Rather than wait indefinitely for the international community to live up to its own obligations under international law, many of these people have decided to take matters into their own hands. With legal channels for movement limited or completely cut off, many of these people have little choice but to seek the services of smugglers who can help them reach safety and opportunity. It is this pool of displaced and disposed people, and the complete failure of the international system to help these people, that is creating unprecedented demand for smuggler services.

The actors who operate within various smuggling markets carry out their activities along a spectrum of criminality that includes low-level opportunists who seize an impromptu chance to make a quick buck, to highly sophisticated experts who can obtain passports and paperwork for the right price. Some smugglers are highly exploitative and have little regard for their human cargo. Others take pride in their work, operate with professionalism, and are held in high regard by the men, women and children they help reach safety (even if they did so in exchange for payment).

We also wanted readers to understand how polices that seek to block asylum seekers and target smugglers, but do nothing to address the underlying conditions that create demand for smuggler services, are ineffective and counterproductive. In fact, when the borders and barriers to irregular migration increase, but the circumstances that necessitate movement remain constant, lower-level opportunists are pushed out of the smuggling market because the new barriers exceed their criminal skills. Only those with requisite criminal expertise can operate and organized criminal groups, many of which are already involved in activities such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and human trafficking, takeover the market and make unprecedented profits.

In terms of shortcomings, I am not sure the book offers the “answers” or “solutions” that many might be looking for. We do analyze the negative impact of certain policies, and we do consider how certain policies might yield unintended consequences, but we refrain from offering a one-size-fits-all solution. Additionally, Tuesday and I came at this work from different backgrounds, so what we consider one of the book’s strengths—the balance between accessibility, timeliness, and rigor—other audiences might view as a weakness. We do cite and reference academic articles throughout the first section of the book, but we do not grapple with existing academic literature or theories of organized crime and irregular migration in ways that academics might prefer.


L.A.: The book is one of those rare examples of writings aimed to a broader audience that goes beyond the sensationalism surrounding the rhetoric of human smuggling. It critically engages with the figure of the migrant smuggler while problematizing the simplistic generalizations and representations connected to the phenomenon. In your view, why there is such a discrepancy between informed accounts like yours and mainstream narratives of human smuggling and irregular migration?

 P.T.: In academia, scholarship is an ongoing conversation among experts. It might take place at the speed of annual conferences and peer review, but it is, by and large, taking place in good faith. There are standards and structures in place to actually disincentive sensationalism, and the rewards go to those who do good work.

Regretfully, this is not necessarily the case in journalism, especially since the business models of newspapers and magazines have collapsed in recent years. The monetary incentives at the moment, which often privilege page views and shares on social media, reward the sensational. Those who do great work are still often recognized and lauded by their peers, but they also might go out of business.

While the discrepancy between informed accounts and mainstream narratives is not unique to human smuggling and irregular migration, I do think these particular topics—replete with images of overcrowded boats or masses of foreigners who look different and might practice a different religion—do lend themselves to sensationalism.

I guess the prevailing question, then, is what is the best response to sensationalism. I’m all for calling out the worst examples on social media or in letters to editors, but it seems like the best response in the long term is to counter them with better journalism and scholarship.

Rather than highlight the problematic narratives, Tuesday and I set out to write an accurate one for a general audience. We said in the introduction that our book sits somewhere between a work of journalism and social science, and that it was neither a call to action nor a work of moral outrage. We wanted to write something that is accessible but also challenges readers. That’s why it was important for me that we constantly weave in the characters involved, both migrants and smugglers, so that readers understood that we are talking about real people, not faceless actors operating in the shadows or hidden among the masses.


L.A.: Your work involves multi-sited research in increasingly dangerous zones. How did you approach research participants and conduct your investigation? Have there been any dangerous situations during your work?  How did you deal with those?

Depending on the location, particularly in North Africa and the Sahel, I usually make arrangements with people in advance who can introduce me to some of the actors involved. In other cases, such as in the Balkans or in Calais, it can be as straightforward as showing up and asking questions and developing relationships from there. In every case, the key is to establish some sort of trust with people who can help you better understand what is going on.

Mitigating risk and danger is always a complex endeavor. In places that are unambiguously dangerous, I make sure I work with fixers and translators who have a proven track record of working in hostile environments. In places like northern Niger and Mali, I’ve worked with a lot of different interlocutors, and I’m constantly reassessing where I can go and how long I should stay in a certain place while I’m there.

In 2015, for example, I was in Agadez, northern Niger, with a film crew and it was hard for us to keep a low profile given our equipment. The shoot was taking a bit longer than anticipated, and a few of us stayed behind to follow-up on a promising lead. I received a phone call from a Nigerien contact I had met with during a previous trip and with whom I occasionally text. He is not someone I completely trust, and he associates with some sketchy actors who split their time between northern Niger and southern Libya. I had not told him I would be in Agadez, but when he called, he told me that he heard I was in town and asked how long I would be there. It turns out someone else in Agadez notified him of our presence, and now he wanted to know our itinerary and where we were staying. I told him we had already left northern Niger, and then we immediately changed locations for the evening. We left the next day.


L.A.: Did you have a translator with you? And how important are translators for your daily work?

 P.T.: I prefer not to have a translator whenever possible, which for me, means finding people who speak English (or often, broken English) or French. Tuesday and I also hired local researchers to carry out fieldwork on our behalf in certain locations. Beyond being able to overcome language barriers, local researchers can be invaluable in navigating the socio-cultural landscape. I have no doubt, for example, that some refugee and migrant women we interviewed were much more comfortable sharing their experiences with a woman than with me.


L.A.: As your work involves enquire into criminal business, it steps into a delicate field where ethical and safety issues are of the outmost importance. Since the late 1960s, anthropologists have begun taking seriously the ethical dilemmas entailed in working and living in a world fraught with political turmoil. Today, when anthropologists carry out their researches, they face a whole set of ethical issues including – but not limited to – the need of protecting the autonomy, wellbeing, and dignity of all research participants whose safety our research might endanger. As a journalist, what ethical dilemmas did you confront? And how did you did deal with those?

 P.T.: Unlike in academia, where various disciplines have well-defined, if evolving, ethical standards and researchers are subject to institutional review boards, ethics in journalism is much less clearly defined. Most reputable outlets, broadly speaking, have similar standards and subscribe to similar codes of ethics, and most reputable journalists adhere to them, but heady concepts such as “the public interest” and “newsworthiness” can be pretty murky.

Generally speaking, my main preoccupation is making sure that my own reporting does not put anyone in danger or cause harm. That’s the minimum. For this book, we granted anonymity to anyone who wanted it, and in some cases I assigned pseudonyms to people who, despite the fact that they knew I was a journalist, might not have had a clear understanding the extent to which the information they gave me would be made public. Some of these people were talking to me only minutes after surviving a boat crossing, or as they were preparing to place their lives in the hands of a smuggler, and I constantly reminded myself of that.

A lot of newspaper editors and magazine editors would probably not be comfortable with the levels of anonymity we granted, and I don’t blame them. It makes these stories nearly impossible to fact-check, but for me, it was the only way we could write this book in a way that was truthful and ethical. Some of the people we reference, for example, were in the process of applying for asylum, and I did not want our book to potentially complicate their lives in any way.


L.A.: Let us talk about your work one more time. During their fieldwork, researchers usually develop a strong empathy and a sense of personal responsibility for the peoples they study and live with. Neutrality or activism. This dilemma has led scholars like Nancy Scheper-Hughes to question the idea that field researchers can be neutral, detached, and objective observers. In your work, how do you strike a balance (if you do) between being the neutral observing reporter and the engaging, sympathetic human being?

P.T.: I personally do not have much interest in objectivity when it comes to my work. The most important thing for me is that my writing and reporting is factual, accurate, and fair. I actively avoid chasing a false sense of neutrality, because I think it is a slippery slope to inaccuracy. That’s my own preference, and it informs the types of stories I choose to work on. But not everyone prefers this approach, and that is fine.

One ethical dilemma I am always facing, however, is to what extent it is acceptable to ask people to recount or relive traumatic experiences. During recent trips to Libya and Honduras, this was constantly in the back of my mind as men and women were telling me about being tortured and terrorized. How do I justify asking them to incur the emotional and psychological costs of talking to me? I think that is a question that not enough journalists ask themselves.


L.A.: Over the past years, the EU member states have developed controversial governmental policies to respond to the refugee and migration movements. What is your take on Europe’s current role in the so-called migrant crisis? From your reporting over the past years, what do you think would be a more ethical and effective European response to the current crisis?

 P.T.: I’m highly critical of the EU responses to refugee and migration movements. When it comes to refugees, I don’t think these are complicated or complex phenomena. You either believe in the 1951 Refugee Convention or you don’t. I find debates over the “politics” of this tiresome and, to be honest, disingenuous. So much of what European policymakers and commentators are framing as clear-eyed realism is really just an exercise in rationalizing why it is acceptable to ignore obligations under international law. The fact that Europe is collaborating with unaccountable militias in Libya, Sudanese security forces, and a range of other unsavory actors in order to stem the flow of refugees speaks for itself.

The most effective way for Europe, and the broader international community, to reduce the number of refugees arriving would be to commit resources to ending and preventing the types of conflicts and situations that produce mass refugee populations, and to address the needs of populations who have found themselves living in situations of protracted displacement. It would require leadership and investing in the types of institutions and structures that can adequately address these issues. That’s easier said than done, but I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face that the international community has committed sufficient resources and energy toward reducing the global pool of refugees and displaced persons. Before we dismiss such proposals, I would at least like to see them tried.

Now, when it comes to economic migrants, that is a much trickier question and one over which I think reasonable people can disagree. It ultimately comes down to whether European countries want to provide safe, legal opportunities for migrants from developing countries to access European labor markets. My personal opinion is that those countries that do, and do it well, will benefit tremendously. But given the current political climate in Europe, even those policymakers who agree with this in theory seem more concerned with finding ways to curb migration for the sake of political expediency.


L.A.: Beyond the European context, what do you believe is a realistic approach to irregular migration worldwide? And what do you think would be an ideal solution to human smuggling?

P.T.: These are the types of questions I always try to avoid, in part because people have radically different interpretations of “realistic” and “ideal solution.” The “solutions” question can be particularly dangerous, because it often means tacitly accepting someone else’s framing of the “problem.” When European policymakers ask me what they can do to combat migrant smuggling, for example, they aren’t actually interested in any solution that means taking in more migrants or making migration easier for prospective migrants.

As we say in the book, smugglers exist because in the world we have created, tens of millions of people have deemed them necessary in order to live safe, productive lives. They are the supply in a time of unprecedented demand. The solution to human smuggling, therefore, is to render them unnecessary. For refugees, that would mean providing safe, legal channels for them to reach safety and to escape scenarios of indefinite, protracted displacement. And for economic migrants, that would mean providing more safe and legal opportunities for migration while committing to making the world a radically more equitable place across the globe.

Now, if you do believe that political or security imperatives demand hard borders and restrictions on movement, then you need to accept that human smugglers are going to exist. That’s the tradeoff. People need to and want to move, and restricting their movement means that smugglers will step in to provide services that allow them to reach safety and opportunity. But even within this framing, policymakers and law enforcement officials could adopt a “do no harm” approach. That is, European policymakers could consider if a given policy is likely to put migrants in danger or empower the most exploitative actors within the migrant smuggling economy. If the answer is yes, and it almost always is unless the policy is coupled with actions that credibly engage the drivers of migration and displacement, then moral imperatives might dictate that the policy be discarded.

That’s not a solution, but it would so much better than the status quo.

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