Waiting for the Smuggler: Tales Across the Border

In September 2015, the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on a beach after drowning while trying to reach Greece from Turkey sent waves of  indignation around the world. A few weeks later, equal moral outrage was generated by the suspicions that Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, could have been one of the smugglers who that night caused the death of his own baby and other refugees – including his wife and other son. Accusing him were the two alleged smugglers under trial in Turkey for the deaths, who framed the man as the ultimate executor of the tragedy, claiming he had organized the trip and piloted the boat that sunk. Abdullah, whose responsibility in the deaths was eventually dismissed by the accused, denied any involvement, stating: “If I was a people smuggler, why would I put my family in the same boat as the other people?”

Indeed, why? Who was the smuggler, then? “Human smuggler” does not mean, for most people, what the official definition says it means. The UN 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and its accompanying “Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants” state that human smuggling is “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.” Accordingly, the smuggler is a person who transports people illicitly into a third country. Media and political discourses, however, have placed more emphasis on the moral dimension of this actor than on their logistical skills. A profusion of photos and narrative accounts of migrants crammed into wretched boats or trucks circulates in the media worldwide and sketches out the moral traits of one of the cruellest figures of our time, an individual who preys on migrants’ “need for assistance and their dreams for a better life.” Motivated by the circulation of this pejorative view in media and political discourse, I started research on Syrian refugees’ irregular migration to Europe with the ultimate goal of documenting what being a smuggler entails for the actors at the very centre of this unfolding drama. It all began – as we shall see later – with a misplaced question: are human smugglers motivated by anything other than greed and disregard for human life?

To answer this question, my research benefited from the empirical value of a growing, yet still small, body of scholarship that has questioned oversimplified depictions of the relationship between the smuggling facilitator, the travellers

and their communities. As early as 2004, Jeroen Doomernik and David Kyle summarized the complex relationship between smugglers and migrants as a spectrum ranging from the altruistic assistance provided by family members or friends to the exploitative and abusive practices carried out by hardened criminals. While the dominant narrative has continued to favour the smuggler-as-criminal line, the last ten years have seen the advent of both scholarly and journalistic work, which has showcased the strong bonds of trust and care that often tie smugglers and migrants together. Informed by this body of research, between 2015 and 2017, I carried out ethnographic research largely based on interviews and, to a lesser extent, participant observation with Syrian refugees and smugglers themselves in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, and Lebanon. The moment was, to use an infelicitous choice of words, propitious. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians had fled their homes and sought refuge in Europe and elsewhere following the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. At the time of my research, smugglers operated especially out of Turkey, which soon became a gathering point for Syrian refugees travelling from Syria and its neighbouring countries to Europe. As my fieldwork unfolded, a more complex picture emerged. The time spent with my interlocutors showed me how human smuggling held strong social and moral significance for both migrants and smugglers. Despite assumptions of deceit and deception, trust and cooperation seemed to be the rule more than the exception in the interaction between migrants and those behind their journeys. Most smugglers operated by helping members of their immediate circles to reach the destinations that would have been otherwise precluded to them through legal channels. Remarkably, not only did smugglers depict themselves as service providers who privileged ethical choices over mere profit, but even migrants described them as muhtaramin (decent and respectable persons). Indeed, human smuggling appeared to be rooted in patterns of cooperation, protection, and support.

And yet, most if not all my interlocutors, including the “smugglers” themselves, spoke of smuggling in abstract terms as a very abusive and evil practice. Crucial elements in a mechanism of protection from below, smugglers were widely perceived by migrants and even themselves as abusive exploiters who prey on the need of safety of their victims, the migrants. This inconsistency bothered me. When interacting with smugglers, they never called them with the Arabic equivalent – muharrib – a word with a negative connotation that evokes exploitation and violence. Neither they used this term privately when they spoke of a facilitator with whom they were in good terms and trusted. A muharrib could not be muhtaram by definition. In fact, migrants referred to their own facilitators by using their personal names or honorific appellatives such as hajj or ammi (litt. paternal uncle). However, my interlocutors, including the “smugglers” themselves, used the word muharrib to refer to smugglers at large. And, when asked to comment over the inner characteristics and moral dispositions of these facilitators of irregular migration, their narratives did not diverge from mainstream narratives of migration. Smugglers were bad.

The full version of the article is published in Vol. 1 Issue 2 of the journal Public Anthropologist. To access the article click here.


* This work was supported by H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions [752144].

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