Do not be fooled: smuggling refugees is not “Human Trafficking”

In the recent months of arrivals of tens thousands of desperate refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other countries, many politicians have found a clever way of diverting people’s moral attention. Blaming the victims works only with a part of the population, so an alternative strategy was adopted: to blame supposed traffickers and smugglers.

David Cameron for example has said that:

we have got to crack down on the terrible traffickers and people smugglers who are at the heart of this problem

The prime minister of Italy goes so far as to say that:

We are fighting a war against human traffickers […] There is no parallel in history for this except for slavery

In this version of things, the problem is not so much the victims or the lack of willingness to take in refugees, and not even the war they flee from: it’s the people who organize their escape. The truth is that sending people across the Mediterranean is not human trafficking, and those using the words know it. The United Nations defines Human Trafficking as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Unless European elites are in coordination with the smugglers to bring to Europe, people who would have prefered to stay in the Middle East and North Africa, to prostitute them or remove their organs, the matter is quite a different one. It is true that smugglers have in many cases taken advantage of people, and take in extortionary fees for transporting people from war zones into Europe. It is also true that refugees are in enormous risks of being taken advantage in the most inhumane ways (including real human traffic). But the cynic use of the loaded term “Traffickers” is meant to solve the moral ambiguity: the state can try to keep refugees away while at the same time doing the noble work of combating (supposed) traffic.  In fact the EU has launched military operations in Libya calling them a «systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers».

This rhetoric is also a threat to the fight against real human trafficking based on coercion and forceful exploitation of human beings – often for forced prostitution and slavery -, which is a very serious crime and problem, and does not deserve to be compared to refugees putting themselves at the mercy of reckless smugglers. There are millions of people who are victims of human traffic, and European leaders would do well to combat this horrible crime and, given the numbers of vulnerable people, to be vigilant. Purposefully confounding the smuggling of refugees fleeing from a wars that have killed more than a quarter of a million people, with the coercive exploitation of humans, is a cheap trick we should not fall for.


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