Gabriella Sanchez, National Security Studies Institute, University of Texas, El Paso

Back to the Drawing Board: Towards a Recalibration of Human Smuggling Scholarship

In the fear-loaded language of national security, sovereignty and borders, the extralegal facilitation of human mobility poses serious threats to the nation state. It does not merely involve irregular migration: it can lead to human trafficking, to the unrestrained spread of transnational crime, and even to the commission of terrorist acts. Those who provide human smuggling services have also become the quintessential predators of late modernity – they are heinous, violent, male criminals from the global south who abandon their own kin along the migrant and refugee trail, rape women, steal children, and exploit the poor out of pure greed, while partnering with underground, ominous networks.  

Over the last decade critical work on the facilitation of irregular migration that addresses the narrowness and simplistic nature of this discourse has emerged. Relying on auto-ethnography, fieldwork among migrants and refugees, and empirical exercises with smuggling facilitators and their friends and families, researchers have carved a space within migration and criminological scholarship for new perspectives on the processes related to the facilitation of irregular border crossings and migration. The articulation of concepts like precarity and brokerage has allowed to push the boundaries that have traditionally constrained the treatment of smuggling facilitation to graphic depictions of victimization, violence and exploitation. Yet researchers themselves have acknowledged the lack of a strong theoretical basis in smuggling, and the complicated, at times problematic methodological limitations and ethical implications of conducting work on smuggling operations and irregular migration.

Drawing from ethnographic examples of work conducted along the US Mexico Border, North Africa, the Middle East and Australia among smuggling facilitators and their clients, this seminar presentation is a call for the re-articulation of the current frameworks present in human smuggling scholarship, which often have relied upon (and in the process, reinscribed) the very concepts they criticize to articulate theoretical underpinnings and empirical analyses. It proposes the recalibration of irregular migration practices as collective efforts towards the construction of informal systems of protection under neoliberalism – an often faulty, yet dynamic form of human security emerging along the margins; from below. Relying on fieldwork examples this seminar will reflect on how the incorporation of notions of identity, community, solidarity, love, and friendship can help us recalibrate mainstream narratives of smuggling and allow for more thorough theoretical analyses of its practices and implications.

Gabriella Sanchez is a faculty member of the National Security Studies Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso. A socio-cultural anthropologist, her work documents the day-to-day interactions of men and women who along the migrant and refugee trail become involved in underground, illicit and criminalized activities. She is the author of Border Crossings and Human Smuggling (Routledge, 2015) which described the dynamics of smuggler-initiated irregular border crossings on the US-Mexico border. Her current work examines the interactions between human smuggling and drug trafficking markets in the context of Mexico’s war on drugs, and the facilitation of transcontinental human smuggling in the Americas, Africa and the Middle East.

Find out more about the Migration cluster at the Department of Social Anthropology.

All seminars in the series.