Photo: Christopher Jahn/IFRC

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented period of population movement characterized by the European migrant crisis. Millions are displaced and find themselves in a legal black hole, rendered stateless and lacking basic rights and recognition.

Since 2011 and the beginning of the conflict in Syria, large numbers of migrants have left their homes due to the omnipresent threat of violence, discrimination and the growing difficulties of living in the area. The number of migrants has increased from 2014 due to the emergence of ISIS and the increase in acts of aggression.

Throughout summer 2015 and summer 2016 the world media was dominated with reports of mass migration, particularly across the Mediterranean Sea.  Newspapers were filled with distressing images of drowning children and families struggling to reach their destinations. Stories composed of migrants facing harrowing journeys from their homelands to reach Europe in the search for safety and refuge contrasted the increased cries for tighter European border control. However, the migration crisis is widely sensationalized and dramatized without a focused understanding of the different types of journeys that migrants take.

Trafficking and human smuggling are phrases are often associated with this latest migrant crisis and yet very little is actually known about the community dimension of this and the symbiotic relationship between the smugglers and migrants. Although the terms ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’ have largely been used interchangeably by politicians and in the media, they are very different. The most important distinction between smuggling and trafficking is an issue of consent.  ‘Smuggling’ usually means that the person in question is cooperative in their movement and there is no coercion. ‘Trafficking’, however, contains an element of force or coercion and the victim is involved in labour, services or commercial sex acts. There have been reports of the use of both smuggling and trafficking to move individuals across the Mediterranean and into Europe.

The distinction between the two types of movement is also very difficult to distinguish in individual cases as people who were initially cooperative may find themselves trapped or trafficked. For many, paying a smuggler is the only way that they have to escape a country where they may face conflict, human rights abuses, famine and destitution. Smugglers often exploit the individuals who are desperate to leave their current situation and charge extortionate fees for very dangerous journeys. One 23-year-old man told the BBC earlier this year that he had paid over $3000 for his journey from Pakistan to Greece. During his journey, the boat he was on broke down and Greek authorities rescued him and the other migrants onboard after they spent four hours in the sea. This is a common story but it highlights the complexities of the migratory journey and the indifference of smugglers to the people they are moving. However, some academics and journalists have also argued that by the very act of agreeing to be smuggled, the individual is complicit in their own exploitation and that by attempting to fight the smugglers, European authorities are inadvertently exacerbating the problem by forcing the migrants to find new, sometimes more dangerous, routes.

The journeys that migrants take are further complicated by bureaucratic restrictions and their complicated legal status that means even once they reach their destination, their journey is not nearly complete. One certainty is that the migrant crisis is far from over and migrants will continue to undertake long and dangerous journeys in an effort to find a safe place to call home.

This week, CMI, together with the International Migration and Ethnic Relations Research Unit Bergen (IMER), Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK) and the Faculty of Law at UiB will present a seminar on ‘Journeys’. The seminar will explore the routes, journeys and trajectories of modern migration. The seminar will form part of ‘Migration Week’. For more information: Migration Week

By Anna Gopsill

Anna Gopsill

Project Adviser and PhD candidate