Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Rethinking ‘Smuggling’ in Libya

Dr. Gabriella Sanchez is a Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) of the European University Institute where she leads the Migrant Smuggling research agenda. She is the author of Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (Routledge, 2016) and Co-Editor of the 2018 Special Issue on Migrant Smuggling of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. Her All Souls Seminar focused on recent fieldwork she has been conducting on the facilitation of migration in Tunisia and Libya.


Time to read

3 Minutes

The facilitation of unauthorized migration across national borders - often referred to as ‘migrant smuggling’ - has been framed in recent times as a social and political crisis. In North America, Europe, and Australia, political leaders and media outlets have devoted substantial fiscal and political resources to combating ‘migrant smuggling.’ Yet, there is an enduring lack of empirical data from migrants and facilitators needed to answer basic questions about the facilitation process.

Responding to this problem, Dr. Gabriella Sanchez presented the results of her recent fieldwork on the facilitation of migration in Tunisia and Libya. Building on previous work with migrant facilitators along the US-Mexico border, this research represents one of the first attempts to understand the complex web of relationships and experiences that underpin the facilitation of migration through granular, qualitative research. Sanchez’s research provides a much needed empirical and conceptual base with which to understand and critique dominant narratives concerning ‘smuggling’, criminality, and irregular migration.

Sanchez’s approach to the subject has been shaped by her own background. Growing up in the state of Michoacan in Mexico, a region with a long history of migration to the United States of America, mobility was an engrained aspect of cultural, social, and economic life. After emigrating to the US, Sanchez worked as part of an anti-smuggling unit in a law enforcement agency in Maricopa County, Arizona, interviewing immigrants charged with human smuggling offences. During this time, Sanchez found that the law-enforcement trope of ‘smugglers’ as highly organized individuals with deep connections to other organized crime networks didn’t match the reality on the ground. Instead, Sanchez found that the people charged with smuggling were often migrants themselves, frequently entering the facilitation industry because they lacked other economic prospects. In this sense, ‘smuggling’ was an industry run by the poor for the poor, often forming a part of social life in migrant-sending communities in Mexico.

Drawing upon interviews and field visits conducted along the border regions of Libya and Tunisia, and interviews with ‘successful’ migrants in Italy, Sanchez challenged the established framing of ‘smuggling’ in North Africa by considering the issue through the lenses of security and modern slavery. Media coverage of irregular migration from Libya to Italy has often portrayed these forms of mobility as a social malfunction generated by conflict and ‘limited statehood’ in Tunisia and Libya. In these narratives, ‘smuggling’ is a destabilizing force presenting a serious threat to the sovereignty of southern European states. Following the widespread publicity garnered by videos of migrants being sold at auction that surfaced in 2017, many European policymakers have incorporated the fight against ‘smuggling’ in North Africa into the broader discourse of the fight against ‘modern slavery.’ Sanchez noted how these representations emphasise the greed and brutality of Libyan militias and tribes as ‘smugglers’, and linger on the vulnerable, often feminized bodies of sub-Saharan African migrants.

Sanchez’s research challenges these narratives. Migrants from a wide range of countries continue to come to Libya, due in part to the relative strength of the Libyan currency and persistent poverty in migrant-sending communities. Sanchez’s data indicated that many facilitators were migrant themselves, turning to facilitation as a way to repay loans accrued during their own journeys or to earn money for onward travel. Unlike media narratives, where violence did occur, facilitation had a predominantly economic logic, either though extortion or kidnapping for ransom. Indeed, Sanchez argued compellingly that the orientalist trope of Libyan tribes as rapacious smugglers hides the high levels of inequality and marginalization across the country.

Sanchez argued that engaging in the facilitation of mobility was a strategy for reducing economic precarity. In areas designated as smuggling havens by organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Sanchez found a wide array of illicit economies beyond the facilitation of migration that demonstrate the link between the mobility of goods and people and economic livelihoods. During field visits to rural Tunisian border regions, Sanchez described the widespread presence of markets selling gasoline and fuel from Libya where those commodities are significantly cheaper. Similarly, Sanchez noted the longstanding and critical role of mobility to economies in these regions. Often, ‘smugglers’ were independent operators who used income from their activities to supplement other income sources, spending most of their income locally rather than saving it. In these communities, facilitation is one of few viable strategies for reducing economic precarity. In this sense, Sanchez’s reconceptualization of facilitation echoes a similar body of research within migration studies that has emphasized how migration aims to reduce economic precarity and diversify household income.

Mobility and ‘smuggling’ in North Africa are frequently viewed as dangerous, irregular social phenomena.  Many NGOs and intergovernmental organizations have documented the dire conditions many migrants in Libya face, particularly those in detention facilities. While acknowledging the unique forms of violence migrants in transit face, Sanchez’s research calls for a more nuanced view of migration and mobility in North Africa, beyond the lenses of security and modern slavery. On one hand, this approach seeks to excavate and understand how the restriction of mobility shapes facilitation and perpetuates particular forms of violence. At the same time, this view also seeks to develop a ground-up account of facilitation which acknowledges the centrality of mobility and the informal labour market to social and economic life. Overall, Sanchez’s research represents an exciting and theoretically innovative contribution to the broader fields of migration studies and border criminologies.