What is the difference between human trafficking and smuggling? In light of the current migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, this has become a relevant and important question. In case you haven’t been reading up on what is happening off the shores of Italy, Greece, and Libya, here are some things you need to know.
LIBYA BOUND. Thousands of migrants – mainly from Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia – are making the long trek to Libya, where they hope to board a boat that will take them to Europe. They are fleeing their countries due to political oppression, violence, or poverty, meaning that by definition they are not simply migrants but refugees. By the time they reach Libya, many have already made a perilous journey through the desert, but Libya’s political situation does not allow for any opportunities. Europe has become their only hope, their dream for a future.
PAYING FOR A PROMISE. Smugglers promise to take these refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. They charge large sums between $500 – $1000 per person to transport them on boats, most of which are not seaworthy. For many refugees, this payment constitutes their entire life savings, and they desperately hope the smuggler can be trusted to follow through on their promise.
CLEAR SKIES. When the weather looks clear, the boats set out from Libya. They are filled to overcapacity – some are rubber dinghies, others are old fishing boats. The passengers are often treated poorly, and some are locked below the decks.
THE NUMBERS. 35,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 alone, many from Libya. More than 1,700 people are believed to have died this year so far. On April 19, about 800 drowned when their boat capsized in Libyan waters near Lampedusa. Many of these were children, who had reportedly been locked in the lower levels of the boat. The IOM believes the number of migrants dying in Mediterranean Sea crossings could hit 30,000 this year if the current rate continues.
I’d like to pause for a moment and ask you to let this all in. Imagine being so desperate that you would be willing to leave everything you know behind and risk a dangerous voyage across the sea. First, you are worried that the smuggler you paid might take your money and run. If he does follow through on his promise, you fear that you might hit a storm on the water. And what if you manage to reach Europe, only to get deported?
Media reports on this crisis have been using the terms “traffickers” and “smugglers” interchangeably. The captain of the boat that capsized last week was charged with being a human trafficker, but there is a significant distinction between trafficking and smuggling.
Human smuggling is when someone facilitates the transportation or illegal entry of a person across and international border, in violation of one or more countries’ laws. The person being smuggled consents to this, and usually has to pay the smuggler a large sum of money for their services. Once the person reaches their destination, the smuggler’s work is done and they typically part ways.
Human trafficking, unlike smuggling, does not involve consent of the person being trafficked. It involves force, fraud, or coercion, and is done with the purpose of exploitation. Usually when a trafficked person reaches their destination, they are sold and exploited for profit. Human trafficking does not require movement across an international border.
Most of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean are being smuggled, not trafficked. However, because the underlying factors that push people into seeking asylum are often similar to the factors that make people vulnerable to traffickers, sometimes what starts out as smuggling can turn into a trafficking situation. Here are some potential scenarios:
Manuel, a Mexican teenager who wants to escape gang violence, plans to pay a coyote (smuggler) to get him across the U.S. border. It takes him two years to save enough for the fee, and he finds a coyote with a good reputation. He makes it across the river, walks through the desert, and finds work as a farm hand in California. But his new employer often withholds the money he’s earned, forces him to work with dangerous chemicals without adequate protection, and limits his movement with the threat of deportation. While Manuel’s initial journey across the border was a classic case of smuggling, his vulnerability resulted in him being trafficked for labour.
Lucy has fled Nigeria and has paid smugglers to take her across the desert to the coast, where she will make an attempt to reach Europe. At one point during the trek across the desert, the smugglers bribe two border guards by letting them rape Lucy. Lucy finally makes it to the coast, but the journey took longer than expected and she still owes the smugglers some money. They withhold her documents until she pays, and encourage her to sell her body to make money fast. While Lucy’s situation began as smuggling, it turned exploitative quickly and can now be categorized as human trafficking.
Refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, because they often have no choice but to entrust their lives into the hands of complete strangers. For this reason, it is imperative that we demonstrate compassion and take action on their behalf. Because if I was fleeing my home with only the clothes on my back, I would desperately hope to encounter kindness – not exploitation – on my road to safety.
Here are some ways you can get involved:
1. Get plugged in with UNHCR – Since 1950, the UN Refugee Agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of more than 9,300 people in 123 countries continues to help and protect millions of refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless people. Donate or sign up to volunteer today.
2. My friend Sarah has made it her goal to raise $30,000 before her 31st birthday for the Preemptive Love Coalition. The money will provide clothing, housing, education, and legal help for families suffering from persecution and displacement. Every $250 will find a family for an entire year, leading to the sponsorship of 120 families if Sarah reaches her goal of $30,000. Support her today!
3. Sponsor a refugee. As a sponsor, you provide financial and emotional support for the refugees for the duration of the sponsorship. This includes help for housing, clothing and food. Most sponsorships last for one year, but some refugees may be eligible for assistance from their sponsors for up to three years.
4. Run a refugee workshop in your church or community. The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue just launched a fantastic workshop you can use to educate yourself and others about refugees, and what role you can play as a community.
The very least we can do is be aware of what is happening to our brothers and sisters around the world, so do some research this week and consider taking action.