hold on

Hein de Haas is professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam and a leading researcher on migration. This essay challenges the conventional way of thinking about people smugglers. It was first published on Hein de Haas’ blog, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the issue. My thanks to Hein for allowing me to republish the essay on Pandaemonium.

Hein de Haas
Don’t blame the smugglers

The billions spent on the militarisation of border controls over the past years have been a waste of taxpayers’ money. As we are able to witness during the current ‘refugee crisis’, increasing border controls have not stopped asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing borders. As experience and research has made abundantly clear, they have mainly (1) diverted migration to other crossing points, (2) made migrants more dependent on smuggling, and (3) increased the costs and risks of crossing borders.

The fact is that 25 years of militarising border controls in Europe have only worsened the problems they proclaim to prevent. As a very useful graph (see below) drawn by the prominent migration researcher Jørgen Carling illustrates, the EU has been caught up in a vicious circle in which increasing number of border deaths lead to calls to ‘combat’ smuggling and increase border patrolling, which forces refugees and other migrants to use more dangerous routes using smugglers’ services. Longer and more dangerous routes means more people who get injured or die while crossing borders, which then leads to public outrage and calls for even more stringent border controls.

europe's response

In the current panic about the issue, it is often forgotten that so-called ‘boat migration’ across the Mediterranean is a 25-year old phenomenon that started when Spain and Italy introduced (Schengen) visas for North Africans. Before that, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians could travel freely back and forth to work or go on holiday. And so they did in significant numbers. However, this migration was largely circular. Most migrants and visitors would go back after a while, to be close to family and friends, because life back home is less expensive, and because they could easily re-migrate. This experience exemplifies that open migration doors tend to be revolving doors.

With the introduction of Schengen visas in 1991, free entry into Spain and Italy was blocked, and North Africans who could not obtain visas started to cross the Mediterranean illegally in pateras, small fisher boats. This was initially a small-scale, relatively innocent operation run by local fishermen. When Spain started to install sophisticated, quasi-miltary border control systems along the Strait of Gibraltar, smuggling professionalised and migrants started to fan out over an increasingly diverse array of crossing points on the long Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. The diversification of crossing points continued over the 2000s, in which migrants started to cross not only from Morocco and Tunisia, but also Algeria, Libya to Italy and Spain, and from the West African coast towards the Canary Islands.

While in the 1990s most people crossing were young Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians attracted by employment opportunities in southern Europe, over the 2000s an increasing number of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees have joined this boat migration. The major upsurge in numbers over the last few years is mainly the result of an increasing number of Syrians joining this trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Over 2014 and 2015, increased maritime border patrolling in the Mediterranean is one of the causes (alongside the worsening of conditions in Syria and neighbouring countries) of the reorientation of migration routes towards Turkey, the Balkans and Central Europe.

So, these policies have been completely self-defeating. While politicians and the media routine blame ‘smugglers’ for the suffering and dying at Europe’s borders, this diverts the attention away from the fact that smuggling is a reaction to the militarisation of border controls, not the cause of irregular migration. Ironically, policies to ‘combat’ smuggling and irregular migration are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to ‘fight’.

It is therefore nonsense to blame smugglers for irregular migration and the suffering of migrants and refugees. This diverts the attention away from the structural causes of this phenomenon, and the governments’ responsibility in creating conditions under which smuggling can thrive in the first place. Smugglers basically run a business, a need for which has been created by the militarisation of border controls, and migrants use their services in order to cross borders without getting caught. Of course, in the media stories abound of smugglers deceiving migrants, and such stories are certainly true, but there is good research (for instance by Ilse van Liempt and Julien Brachet) showing that smugglers are basically service providers who have an interest of staying in business and therefore generally care about their reputation and have an interest in delivering.

Certainly, smugglers can be ruthless and regularly deceive migrants, but it should not be forgotten that smugglers deliver a service asylum seekers and migrants are willing to pay for. Without smugglers, it is likely that many more people would have died crossing borders. For many refugees and migrants, smugglers are a necessary evil. For some, smugglers can be heroes. For instance, Al Jazeera quoted African refugees in Sudan who saw smugglers as freedom facilitators, because they enabled their escape toward safer countries. The irony is that European countries have created huge market for the smuggling business by multi-billion investments of taxpayers’ money in border controls. There is no end to this cat-and-mouse game, in which smugglers constantly adapt their itineraries and smuggling techniques.

lampedusa boat

So don’t blame the smugglers. Blaming smugglers also diverts the attention away from the vested interests of the military-industrial complex involved in border controls. Under influence of the growing panic about irregular migration and the perception that (supposedly uncontrolled) migration is an imminent threat to Western societies, states have invested massive amounts of taxpayers’ money in border surveillance. Border controlling have become a huge industry, and businesses involved in building fences and walls, electronic border surveillance systems, patrolling vessels and vehicles as well as the military have a vested interest in making the public believe that we are facing an impending migration invasion and that we therefore need to ‘fight’ smugglers, as if we are indeed waging a war.

This reveals the contours of the real migration industry. Arms and technology companies have reaped the main windfalls from Europe’s delusional ‘fight against illegal migration’. As has been documented by the Migrant Files, four leading European arms manufacturers (Airbus (formerly EADS), Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE) and technology firms like Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl are among the prime beneficiaries of EU spending on military-grade technology supplied by these privately held companies whose R&D programs have been financed by EU subsidies. The staging of uncontrolled migration as an essential threat to Western society has also served the military, who have been in search of a raison d’être after the (imagined or real) ‘Communist Threat’ evaporated with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In this way, Europe’s immigration policies have created a huge market for the private companies implementing these policies as well as smugglers. The main victims are migrants and refugees themselves, through soaring smuggler fees and an increasing death tolls. But also European taxpayers who have been deceived and lured into a delusional ‘fight against illegal migration’ by fear-mongering nationalistic politicians. While the same politicians fan the flames of xenophobia by insinuating that refugees will be a huge drain on public funds and a threat to social cohesion, they waste billions of public funds on border controls, which have not stopped irregular migration, but created a market for smuggling and increased the suffering and death toll at Europe’s borders – at least 30,000 people died in their attempt to reach or stay in Europe since 2000.

This has created a multi-billion industry, which has huge commercial interest in making the public believe that migration is an essential threat and that border controls will somehow solve this threat. According to a series of investigations by the Migrant Files, since 2000 refugees and migrants spend over €1 billion a year to smugglers to reach Europe. European countries pay a similar amount of taxpayer money to keep them out, a few companies and smugglers benefiting in the process. Since 2000, the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland have deported millions of people, with a price tag of least 11.3 billion euro. A further billion has been spent on coordination efforts to control European borders, mainly through Frontex, Europe’s border agency. The real costs are much higher, as these figures do not include expenditures on regular border controls by individual member states.

Across the Atlantic, similar same dynamics can be found on the US-Mexican border, where soaring public expenditure on border controls has fuelled a military-industrial complex consisting of arms manufacturers, technology firms, (privatized) migrant detention centres, the military and state bureaucracies involved in deporting people. In a study entitled Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinerypublished in 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based migration think tank, calculated that the US government spent $187 Billion on Federal Immigration Enforcement between 1986 and 2012.

To put this in perspective, the same report showed that $18 billion spent in 2012 are 24% higher, then the combined costs on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies (FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). While these costs are staggering, they have created a huge parallel market for smugglers (coyotes) helping migrants from Mexico and, increasingly, Middle America, to defy border controls.

siev 221 no 4

So, instead of blaming smugglers, it is important to be aware governments have in many ways created their own monster by pouring massive public funds in the migration control industry. Like the mythological Hydra of Lerna, for which each head lost was replaced by two more, each time a migration route is blocked such as through erecting a fence, it will create an ever expanding market for smugglers helping people to get over, under or around migration barriers. This has led to an unintended increase in the area that countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration to span the entire European external border, making the phenomenon less, instead of more, controllable.

National politicians arguing that border controls can solve the current ‘refugee crisis’ are thus selling illusions. The current situation in the Balkans and Central Europe makes this abundantly clear. As long as violent conflict persists in countries like Syria, as well as labour demand for undocumented migrant workers, people will keep on coming, in one way or another.

There is no easy ‘solution’ to this problem, but it should be clear that the solutions of the past have been a counterproductive waste of money and have cause unspeakable suffering.


The images are, from top down, ‘Hold on’ by J, from the Refugee Art Project; ‘The Journey’, a painting by an Italian school student courtesy of Fortress Europe; and ‘Siev 221 No4’ by Euan Benjamin Graham.


  1. Chris

    I think Hein de Haas’s argument is ridiculous. Border controls may not have solved the migrancy problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re the cause of it, or that removing them would remedy the situation. That’s like saying that when there’s a spate of burglaries in a neighbourhood people should remove the locks from their doors. And his saying that the profits made by security companies are a driving force sounds like a bit of anti-capitalist nonsense to me. Is there any country in the world that doesn’t control its own borders?

    • friendlypig

      I agree wholeheartedly. What we are suffering from is a case of capilliary action because the intellectual idiots, our would be political masters, did not recognise that there was a leak – therefore there was no need to take any action to prevent the flow. what we have at the moment are thousands upon thousands of migrants which include, according to figures from the BBC news website between 5% and 15% genuine refugees, who are demanding the right to roam, in other words, free and unfettered access to sovereign countries whether they like it or not so that they can reach a country of their choice.

      This is unacceptable.

      I have every sympathy with genuine refugees fleeing from warzones and persecution but the vast majority of this flood of people of biblical proportions are not refugees. Furthermore they ceased to be refugees when they reached the first safe country. That was where the effort and the finance should have been pointed to help Italy and Greece deal with the situation. What’s going to happen when the first 2 million have landed and come ashore and the rest are knocking at the door demanding entry. What we need is a small Dutch boy whilst the dyke holds.

    • Noor

      No, more like advising people against spending enormous amounts of money on cumbersome and very visible locks, that do nothing to curb burglary, and if anything, increase burglaries because they assume you have more valuables inside.

      That is, if you can even compare your house that you worked for, to a vast expanse of land defined by arbitrarily-delimited ‘borders’ defined by long-dead people through conquest.

    • Hein de Haas’s argument is ‘ridiculous’ only if you have not understood it. He makes two basic points: first that ‘25 years of militarising border controls in Europe have only worsened the problems they proclaim to prevent’; and second that EU policies have helped create the ‘conditions under which smuggling can thrive in the first place’. Both points are incontestable. I have been making similar points for years.

      To liberalize border controls is not, incidentally, the same as ‘not controlling borders’. It is to control borders in one particular way. All those who conflate the idea of ‘liberalized controls’ with ‘uncontrolled borders’ seem to forget that tight border controls are a relatively recent phenomenon, and that Britain, Spain, the USA and many other countries have had open borders (on some of their frontiers, at least) until relatively recently.

      As for the fearmongering about ‘flood of people of biblical proportions’ and of ‘the rest [of the world] knocking at the door’, it is just that – fearmongering. It’s the same argument that has met almost every wave of immigration into European countries, including the ones (such as of Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century, or of New Commonwealth immigrants to Britain in the 1950s and 60s), that are now seen as small scale and acceptable.

      I was particularly struck by @friendlypig’s metaphor of the small boy with his finger in the dyke. It’s the same metaphor used by the American historian and anti-immigration activist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard in his 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. Stoddard warned of the coming collapse of white civilization under a ‘swarm’ of ‘colored’ people, insisting that without action ‘the present world order’ would ‘swiftly and utterly pass away’. Europe and America had to ensure that ‘the rising tide of color finds itself walled in by white dikes debarring it from many a promised land which it would fain deluge with its dusky waves.’

      The West survived that deluge. No doubt it will survive this.

      • damon

        When one says that things worked OK in the past before tightened border and immigration controls, you have to consider how much of that kind of migration people would still find acceptable today. Moroccans coming and going for harvests and work in Spain would often be paid in cash and live in poor conditions on farms or substandard worker accommodation.
        I just saw something similar in South West London on a building site a few weeks ago where someone at the site told me that the Romanian workers there were living in the basement of the building in pretty horrible conditions. Mexican workers in California were exploited as cheap labour. I was in the Los Angeles bus station years ago and there were lines of Mexican migrants queuing to get on their buses for destinations in the agricultural central valley there.
        It didn’t look like something that was good and positive. It looked like poverty and exploitation.
        I picked up a book when I was there called ”Mexifornia – a state of becoming” – which while maybe not really positive about the mass migrations of Mexican people into California, was actually quite sympathetic to the lives that were being led by these people coming to the USA to do hard menial work. He described in some detail the harsh environment faced by these migrant workers.
        The author of the book might be quite cranky in some of his other writings, but coming from right there where this radical change has happened, he is someone to at least give a hearing to on what he says.

        ”My sleepy hometown of Selma, California, is in the dead center of all this. The once rural San Joaquin Valley community has grown from 7,000 to nearly 20,000 in a mere two decades, as a result of mostly illegal immigration from Mexico. Selma is now somewhere between 60 and 90 percent Hispanic. How many are U.S. citizens is either not known or not publicly disclosed: but of all those admitted legally from Mexico to the United States since 1982, only 20 percent had become citizens by 1997. Some local schools, like the one I went to two miles from our farm, are 90 percent first-generation Mexican immigrants. At the service station a mile away, I rarely hear English spoken; almost every car that pulls in displays a Mexican flag decal pasted somewhere.

        To contrast the Selma I live in today with the Selma I grew up in will doubtless seem hopelessly nostalgic. But the point of the contrast is not merely that 40 years ago our community was only 40 or 50 percent Mexican, but rather that the immigrants then were mostly here legally. Crime was far rarer: the hit-and-run accidents, auto theft, drug manufacturing and sale, murders, rapes, and armed robberies that are now customary were then nearly nonexistent. Fights that now end in semi-automatic-weapon fire were settled with knives then.”

        • Noor

          …or strict border controls attract only people that are willing to risk danger to get in. ‘Illegal immigrants’ engage in dangerous smuggling means to enter countries. Who knew?

      • Chris


        If a state is to exist it must have control of its borders. Indeed, a state is defined (in part) as a central authority over a particular territory. A state that isn’t able to control its borders isn’t likely to survive, and I know of no state on earth that doesn’t exercise border control.

        You say “To liberalize border controls is not, incidentally, the same as ‘not controlling borders’. It is to control borders in one particular way. All those who conflate the idea of ‘liberalized controls’ with ‘uncontrolled borders’…” De Haas, though, makes no distinction between liberalized and uncontrolled borders and so you can’t complain that I’m conflating the issues. Moreover, I think it’s incumbent upon those that do make this distinction to be clear about just what they mean by ‘liberalized borders’ and how they are to be distinguished from uncontrolled ones. They need, for instance, to put figures on the numbers of migrants that would be allowed entry and to show that this number could be absorbed and assimilated; they need to stipulate the criteria for granting entry; and they need to explain how those refused entry would be kept out. I’ve heard none of these things discussed in the recent debate, and, certainly, de Haas is silent upon them, and argues only that border controls, having been unsuccessful in stemming the migrant tide, should be abandoned. This seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.


        • damon

          Quote from Chris:
          ”and to show that this number could be absorbed and assimilated”

          My understanding is that liberalised borders would mean a lot of the people who come to Europe (or the USA) would only come for a while and then to go home. So assimilation wouldn’t be a priority. I can’t think what else really. The idea is that it would be something like what we have within the EU now, but more restricted.
          But if you were the kind of economic migrant that we’ve seen crossing the Mediterranean this summer, there would be a reasonable chance that you could make the journey to Europe legitimately on an aeroplane, with a visa. And then you could see how you liked living and working there, and you would be free to go home and come back when it suited you.
          I still don’t see how you get over number restrictions though. Because when the quota was full, what would the people who still desperately wanted to go do? Wait five years till they got to the top of any queuing system? It looks like the USA already operate that kind of system anyway. People wait for years for their chance to emegrate there.

          The presumption seems to be that countries can absorb almost limited numbers of new people. Because it just becomes a different kind of country – or region.
          Even though it seems crowded to me as I try to drive around London for a living, actually the population density is quite low and you could probably double the population if you just rebuilt the city. Which is what some people who are for open borders advocate. Just up the population density and make everywhere more like Japan. High density and hi tech.

          What you don’t want to dwell on I suppose, is people complaining about how migrations have changed an area and made it worse. Poorer for example.
          This is this guy I quoted earlier, talking about how some parts of the central California agricultural valley have been changed dramatically by Mexican migrants both legal and illegal.
          ”Abandoned farms, Third World living conditions, pervasive public assistance — welcome to the once-thriving Central Valley.”

          ”The last three weeks I have traveled about, taking the pulse of the more forgotten areas of central California. I wanted to witness, even if superficially, what is happening to a state that has the highest sales and income taxes, the most lavish entitlements, the near-worst public schools (based on federal test scores), and the largest number of illegal aliens in the nation, along with an overregulated private sector, a stagnant and shrinking manufacturing base, and an elite environmental ethos that restricts commerce and productivity without curbing consumption.

          During this unscientific experiment, three times a week I rode a bike on a 20-mile trip over various rural roads in southwestern Fresno County. I also drove my car over to the coast to work, on various routes through towns like San Joaquin, Mendota, and Firebaugh. And near my home I have been driving, shopping, and touring by intent the rather segregated and impoverished areas of Caruthers, Fowler, Laton, Orange Cove, Parlier, and Selma. My own farmhouse is now in an area of abject poverty and almost no ethnic diversity; the closest elementary school (my alma mater, two miles away) is 94 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white, and well below federal testing norms in math and English.”

        • Chris, when Spain had an open border with North Africa, or when America had one with Mexico, or Britain with the Commonwealth, did the host countries ‘put figures on the numbers of migrants that would be allowed entry’, etc. No. Were they ‘able to control their borders’? Yes. Was it a ‘recipe for disaster’? No. So, let’s not have strawman arguments, when we have evidence of what actually happens with open borders.

  2. Fritz

    Europe is definitely not responsible for corruption and religious fundamentalism in the III. World, nor for their societies dominated by clans and tribes. And Europa cannot change these societies as long as the people there don´t want to change.

  3. But Europe is certainly responsible for the legacy of colonial rapine and plunder which helped exacerbate these problems. If your countries had not destroyed the traditional societies in the interest of religious fanaticism and money, we probably would not have so many failed states. And, Europe (along with our Peace Prize President (gag me) has not learned its lessons. Europe pushed for the Libyan debacle (and the idiot in the White House caved in) and NOW you re whining about North African refugees? You reap what you sow, Europeans.

    • Fritz

      Definitely, when Gaddafi was still in Power, everything was OK in Libya. Same with Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
      I allways wonder why africans don’t blame the Arabs for Slavery and colonialism, when in the end ist lasted more than 1200 years and did much more damage to african societies than europeans ever did. Only Europeans are ever mentioned when they are looking for someone who has to pay.

  4. damon

    It’s an interesting concept that Hein de Haas outlines there, but I don’t know how much scrutiny it would actually stand before showing up some serious weaknesses. If all of Africa was given the right to move in and out of Europe at will, it would at least cause some major logistical problems.
    Like, where people would live and work? Would they have the same freedoms that people from the EU have? Even registering with doctors causes problems locally. As does bringing children over who have to be put into existing schools. What would happen to migrants who ran out of money or were homeless? Will they be able to drive cars on driving licences issued in the Democratic Republic of Congo? And if people are mostly temporary visitors, the coming and going and transience would make more areas resemble bedsitland. Which often isn’t an attractive look.

    And I’m pretty sure the communities would grow and grow. For everyone going home after a few years, a couple more would take their place and they would be starting their own families.
    The population of Britain would grow at an accelerated pace.
    Which some people think is fine, but I like open space and quieter roads.
    But what will happen will happen regardless of what anyone whishes I think.
    Next year there could be an even greater number of migrants and asylum seekersseekers coming.

  5. damon

    I was thinking about this subject today and wondering what kind of visas we’d expect the millions of people who’d want to come to Europe from Africa and Asia to get before they arrived.
    To work in Australia for example, Europeans can apply for a working holiday visa which lasts for up to two years. It has a few requirements like::

    You must be between 18 and 30 years old.
    You must have a valid passport with at least 6 months until renewal.
    You must have sufficient funds to support yourself when you arrive in Australia.
    You must not have any substantial criminal convictions.
    You must not have any substantial medical issues.

    You also have to show that you have a return airline ticket back to your country, and you will be required to pay for any medical attention you receive there.

    Already, those requirements might be deemed unfair, as people might not have a couple of thousand pounds in funds to support themselves before they got a job or moved into accommodation.
    And you wouldn’t want visa requirements to look too much like guest worker programmes, which often seem like labour exploitation. But on the other hand, you don’t want to bring poverty and disadvantage to an area either. We already have some people from Eastern Europe sleeping rough and using homeless services around the country.

  6. damon

    Re Kenan’s last comment – l think we need to go through some of the possible detail.
    The world has changed since those earlier migrations. The numbers who would want to come to Europe are potentially huge – so there would need to be some kind of quota system. I always wanted to be able to work in the USA but was only allowed there as a tourist, with a very finite amount of time allowed there. I’m going again in a couple of weeks and had to get the electronic visa that everyone has to get these days. I’m absolutely forbidden to work and have to have a plane ticket out of the the country.

    If there were to be millions of extra people moving in and out of Europe, it can’t be like before where people worked for cash in hand. Today everyone needs bank accounts, drivers licences, credit and phone contracts. If people were coming in and out a lot, it would cause a serious amount of extra bureaucray. There would probably be a lot of unpaid bills left behind also, as when someone was coming to the end of their time in Europe, the temptation to leave without settling bills would be great.
    Particularly for people returning to poor countries.
    Some concrete proposals need to be put down, even just to discuss it in theory.
    A country like Nigeria could have applications from at least half a million people if some scheme was set up that allowed people there to move to England.

    • Chris

      As you claim there is a distinction between liberalised borders and uncontrolled ones, I think you should explain just what you understand the difference to be.

      • It’s exasperating when someone raises an issue, you respond, and then they simply ignore your response and ask the same question again in a different form. As I pointed out in an earlier response to you, there are many real-life cases of countries with open borders in which few would suggest that they had lost control of those borders. When in 1991 Spain ended its open border policy with North Africa, it did not do so because it had lost control of its border but because it was forced to do so by EU regulation (Spain had become an EU member in 1986). All these cases provide real life explanations of the difference between ‘liberalized’ (indeed open) borders and ‘uncontrolled’ ones. An open border does not mean not taking action against, say, cross-border criminal activities, or not arresting wanted criminals, etc. It simply means not putting an artificial limit on the numbers that may cross it.

        Let me turn the question round: since you seem opposed to liberalizing EU border controls, is it your view that one can only control borders by creating a fortress?

        • Chris


          I’ve no wish to exasperate, and thanks for making your understanding of open borders clear. With regard to your question to me, I’ll point out that at the beginning of this exchange, on 15th September, and in response to your post ‘A refugee crisis – and a crisis of response’, the first sentence of my comment was ‘I don’t see any alternative to the Fortress Europe policy if we’re not to commit cultural suicide.’

          You’ve several times referred to the effects of control over the Spanish/Moroccan and US/Mexican borders and clearly believe that from these examples it can be inferred that uncontrolled borders lead to fewer migrants. I don’t think this is justified and this is where we differ. The numbers wishing to cross Europe’s southern borders are unprecedented and won’t be lessened by making entry easier. To suggest otherwise defies common sense. Indeed there are vast numbers in Africa and Asia who would migrate to Europe, were it feasible for them to do so.

          Europe is a desirable destination for migrants because it is peaceful and prosperous, which is probably as a result of having strong states, the rule of law and accountable governments – a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in Africa or Asia, but which could be damaged in Europe if countries were destabilised by the arrival of too many foreigners within too short a space of time. In other words, too many newcomers could kill the goose which is laying the golden eggs that are what is attracting them in the first place.

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