Syrian Refugee Smuggling, 2014-6: Results from Fieldwork

Exactly a year-and-a-half ago, the EU-Turkey deal shut the Balkan Route for refugees from the Middle East. While evaluations of the agreement have been less than flattering, European politicians continue to argue that repression of smugglers around Turkey has been a success. Alleged anti-smuggler triumphs and lessons from the Balkan Route are routinely used as models for what to do on the (currently urgent) Libya-to-Italy route. Condemnations of traffickers often replace analysis of how the criminals operate, where they come from and what their role is. Instead of identifying root causes in disastrous wars and flawed legal frameworks, many governments have elevated smuggling to the highest priority.

But, as scholars have pointed out repeatedly, the smugglers are a symptom, not a cause.

Policymakers – European and otherwise – have fundamentally misunderstood the migrant-smuggler dynamic. With colleagues at the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies (BCARS), I led a research team to five countries of the Balkan smuggling Route that brought more than a million migrants to Europe in 2014-6. We conducted 150 in-depth interviews of smuggled Syrians and 75 interviews with experts in five countries – Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Germany. I gathered data in dozens of formal, informal, and semi-permanent refugee camps, urban spaces, border crossings, and rural settings. The study of how anti-smuggler repression harms Syrian refugees (in International Migration) and the nature of migrant-smuggler relations (in Social Inclusion) suggests three counter-intuitive points.

First: how the refugees look at smugglers is in stark contrast to how governments, the media and popular culture look at them. Officials see them as cruel exploiters of human misery: criminals, traffickers, predators. Indeed, many policymakers seem to suggest that if only we crack down on smugglers, refugee crises would be solved. Popular culture—including through Oscar-nominated documentaries—glorifies Greek and Italian Coast Guards and other anti-smuggler agents as saviors from the machinations of evil smugglers. Syrian migrants have a different view. Refugees, we found, see the smugglers as guides, allies, saviors – people who are getting them out of a deadly place. Given the legal infrastructure, these smugglers are perceived (not incorrectly) as the only means to assert their asylum-seeker rights and to achieve safety or family reunification. Cracking down on smugglers, furthermore, has primarily hurt Syrians, not the criminals transporting them. We found that, in adapting to increased repression, the smugglers adapt by putting migrants on costlier, riskier and deadlier routes.

Second: trafficking experiences were relatively rare among smuggling experiences more broadly (traffickers are smugglers plus coercion and/or deception). Law-enforcement conflates smugglers with traffickers. Both IOM and UNHCR have conceded that the overwhelming majority of Syrians (>90%) have come illegally to Europe via smugglers. But only a fraction of them were trafficking victims. Less than 10% of our sample experienced labor exploitation, while more than 75% expressed satisfaction and gratitude to their criminal transporters. The in-depth interviews suggest that traffickers were a minor, marginal part of the overall smuggling going on on the Balkan Route.

Third: the data showed that governments, NGOs and other formal refugee-related agents face a serious confidence problem. Refugees trust smugglers – and rely on them for information and other resources – much more than they trust migrant camp officials, government representatives, NGO and aid workers. This created a dangerous dynamic by which the criminals had a monopoly on what many Syrian refugees learned, decided and did. There is a clear reason for this. In a catalogue of major events during migration, the refugees reported a variety of experiences such as near-drownings, forceful detentions, forceful separations, violent injuries and the like. They also reported instances of deception and exploitation. The overwhelming majority of “horror stories” happened at the hands of government representatives: policemen, guards, customs officers and soldiers (most especially Turkish and Hungarian). Similar “horror stories” at the hands of smugglers were rare and trivial by comparison, as reported by our respondents. It is simply misleading to think that the bulk of the risks to refugee health and life stemmed from the smugglers.

Danilo Mandić is a Harvard College Fellow. Read more about his work, or contact him at

2 thoughts on “Syrian Refugee Smuggling, 2014-6: Results from Fieldwork

  1. Danilo,

    Thank you for the insightful points. I believe you are correct that a large debate is taking place on the role of the smuggler, and the migrant-smuggler dynamic. However, it seems to me that the vast majority of states will always treat the smuggler as criminal, not under the crime against persons for alleged human trafficking (which is as you noted, comparatively low in relation to flows, but still a major issue and rights violation), but for the crime against the state. If the state recognizes the ‘benevolent smuggler’ who does not abuse, coerce, or traffick his passengers, do you envision a marked shift in the perception of the act of smuggling? Smugglers will undoubtedly still be charged with the crime of violating a sovereign border, and won’t be awarded any reprieve from say, Italy or Greece for their services to mankind.
    Therefore, while the crime of trafficking is considerably more terrible to say the least, the smuggler remains criminal, regardless of any delineations or moral arguments on their behalf.

    Or am I wrong entirely, and in the future, today’s smugglers will earn the praise and status of the heroes of the Holocaust, or the men and women who helped slaves reach the North? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


  2. Hello,

    I was referring to the migrant perception, as we documented it, of smugglers and the services they provided. Whatever our own judgments about these criminals, surely they can be refined with knowledge of what their actual clients and victims think of them. Indeed, I would argue that we need not accept government judgments about the smugglers and traffickers until taking into account migrants’ own evaluations, and vice versa. But the bias in general is –
    undoubtedly – to automatically accept what policymakers and law-enforcement say about the smugglers, and to disregard or prejudge migrant perceptions. That is a mistake.

    The horrors of migrant trafficking are indisputable. Indeed, our study along the Balkan Route was in part motivated by the need to understand the conditions under which smuggling devolves into trafficking and possible solutions. Several of the findings in the IOM piece are precisely related to the fact that the criminals have a monopoly on the information and advice that migrants use to make decisions, while state and NGO representatives are distrusted. This is a dangerous dynamic, but is stems from a hesitance to provide alternative and credible sources of information. Transparency is needed.

    Incidentally, the “benevolent smuggler” is not a term I am comfortable with, though it is not an altogether new idea (Luigi Achilli from EUI recently wrote an interesting memo called “The Smuggler: Hero of Felon”). On the whole, the root causes of human smuggling need to be taken very seriously – repressing the criminals is not enough.


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