To prevent a desperate person with nothing to lose from making a desperate decision, we need to ensure that such a person has something to lose. This is a strong statement considering the fact that there are enormous risks that some desperate people brave – wittingly or unwittingly – in trying to better their lives, but in the end get trapped in conditions of exploitation or bondage labour, if they ever survive other risks during transportation. Several people across the globe have been victimised by human traffickers and smugglers.
Sensational stories about desperate migrants perishing as they struggle to flee adverse conditions at their source countries or regions are very familiar. Recently (on 27 June 2012), the BBC published an intriguing online story with the headline, “Tanzania: Migrants die in truck”. This is a sad story of 42 Ethiopian migrants who, destined to Malawi (perhaps South Africa?), perished in a truck as result of asphyxiation. Asphyxiation is death resulting from deprivation from oxygen or as a result of suffocation.
The BBC news article is a story symptomatic of deeper problems in society: ingrained systemic conditions which trigger people migration at source regions as well as those factors creating ‘demand’ for exploiting cheap and malleable labour at destinations.
There is no doubt that there could be several unreported or unnoticed cases of people who are ‘wasted’ away in a similar manner. Perhaps, if we are to extrapolate, the number of unreported immigrant deaths could be even much higher than what we know. Deaths of migrants usually result from the callousness of human smugglers and/or traffickers who, wittingly lure or use ‘other means’ to gain full control of their victims, and lead and/or expose them to extreme danger, most of which can be fatal.
If these death incidences or exploitation are easily available in the public domain, why is the problem of human trafficking and smuggling still persistent? What do we know and need to know about human migration, smuggling or trafficking? Though many people agree that it does not require rocket science to conceptualise people movement or exploitation, however, issues relating to the “unholy trinity” of human ‘smuggling’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘migration’ have oftentimes been confused.
Put simply, human smuggling is an ‘immigration crime’: it involves a business transaction between consenting parties regarding illegal movement across borders. The smuggled person is, therefore, a party to the act of smuggling itself. As an offence, human smuggling has an end. Human trafficking on the other hand is a “crime of crimes”: it takes place within a country (or even within a house – consider a brothel owner who recruits his/her child into prostitution and moves him/her from the family rooms into a ‘business’ cubicle for exploitation) internally or internationally (across international boundaries), with the victim not a party to the act. Trafficking offence is a continuum and infinite. It is also possible for a smuggled person to be trafficked, although the reverse is not possible. In human migration, a migrant has the agency of travelling from one area to the other for any reason. Unlike in smuggling and trafficking, migration is a voluntary act.
Why, then, are people disposable? Why is it difficult to curb the danger that smugglers and traffickers pose to humanity? How can the complicity of state and no-state actors (police officers, immigration and border control officers, the private sector that benefits from cheap and malleable labour, financial institutions that facilitate transfer of profits, legitimate businesses that benefit indirectly from exploited labour, restrictive immigration policies, or anti-trafficking NGOs economy that thrives because of human trafficking) involved in the trafficking process be addressed? The trafficking process involves investors, recruiters, transporters, corrupt public official or protectors, informers, guides and crew members, enforcers, debt collectors, money launderers and supporting personnel and specialists. Given this level of sophistication, can we assume therefore, that human trafficking and smuggling are careers? While you ponder over these questions, we should also ask ourselves about the practicality of how to measure human trafficking and smuggling in circumstances where the customers who trigger the demand are equally invisible and invincible.
As highlighted above, the challenges in addressing human trafficking immensely abound: the culture of silence on the victims; low visibility of exploitation; poor data recording, collation, collection and documentation; attitudinal challenge in data collection; sensationalism by the media; lack of coordination to address the problem, among others. The existence of these challenges should not in any way relegate us into the state of lamentation.
Finally, I argue that until such a time when state and non-state actors are willing and able to adequately address structural issues that trigger people’s desperation (from the ‘supply’ side) through making the citizens ‘have something to lose’ if they migrate, people will continue to disregard unknown risks posed by smugglers or traffickers provided they perceive that there are better opportunities elsewhere.