Unaccompanied Minors and the Smuggling/Trafficking Distinction


PANOS Europe has done the media a favor by putting together a glossary of migration terms. If the media – and politicians – did a better job accurately describing migrants and migration, the public debate would be less polarized.
The media and politicians frequently fail to distinguish between smugglers and trafficking. Put roughly, smugglers help people enter a country without authorization. Their motive is material gain: smuggling is a voluntary, economic transaction in which migrants pay for smugglers’ services. In contrast, traffickers use force to recruit and transport people for the purposes of exploitation such as forced labor, slavery, and/or prostitution. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish smuggling and trafficking. For example, it is often hard to know how “voluntary” decisions are under conditions of poverty or social instability. Also, smuggling can involve coercion when migrants are forced to pay back loans upon arrival at their distinction. Nonetheless, the distinction is important: smuggling mutually benefits migrants and smugglers; trafficking benefits traffickers (at an enormous cost to their victims).
In a recent speech after meeting with the Presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, President Obama conflates trafficking and smuggling:
Each President here emphasized the degree to which they have already begun to make efforts to discourage this dangerous trafficking in children.  And I want to thank all of them publicly – I already did so privately – for specific efforts that they’re taking in each country to discourage parents from sending their children on this journey, for going after and arresting smugglers in more aggressive fashion, and for working with us on the issue of repatriating the children and families in a safe and humane way.
President Obama begins with reference to “dangerous trafficking” which would suggest that children are being taken from their homes and transported to the United States as laborers or prostitutes. He then shifts to the language of smuggling, thanking the Central American presidents for taking measures to discourage parents from sending their children.
From a moral perspective, the case against trafficking is unambiguous: people should never be trafficked. If traffickers had captured tens of thousands of children and forced them to come to the United States, the US response could not justify detaining them and subjecting them to the deportation proceedings. It would be locking up and prosecuting victims of kidnapping, rape, and/or slavery.
Of course, most of the Central American children in detention and awaiting processing in the United States have not been trafficked and rescued by the Border Control. Rather, they have relied on smugglers to enter the country because there is no other way for them to reach the US border. (This isn’t to say that they have not suffered violence and abuse at the hands of smugglers, criminal gangs, Central American and Mexican authorities, or others.)
The failure to distinguish between trafficking and smuggling contributes to larger trends of the criminalization of migration. Instead of questioning the social, economic, and political conditions – including civil war – which lead to people paying smugglers to enter other states, migrants and smugglers are branded as law breakers. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime treats smuggling as a criminal enterprise without noting that refugees rely on smugglers because legal channels have been eliminated by developed states and that restrictive border controls have created the conditions in which traffickers flourish by preying on vulnerable migrants.
The moral debate about smuggling needs to look at the full context of migration and ask what conditions create a demand for smugglers.

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