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Migrants vs. smugglers

The relationships existing between migrants and smugglers resemble a typical client-service provider arrangement although it is strongly influenced by an asymmetric power balance. Due to their illegal status, lack of knowledge and inability to arrange their own journey, migrants are invariably on the weaker side of the relationship. Given that throughout the journey most of the migrant’s efforts are expressly devoted to actively looking for contacts and facilitators who can provide them with the services needed in order to continue the travel, their capacity to negotiate and define the conditions of the relationship are necessarily very limited.

Smugglers are usually viewed by the migrants with contradictory feelings and expectations. Although they are the crucial actors who might fulfil their ambitions, they are also a source of further fear, apprehension and distrust. In particular, fear is the feeling migrants most often associate with the smugglers. As the people most closely associated with providing personal support and help in organising their journeys, the relationship with co-nationals involved in the migration process is highly ambivalent. However, in general, the migrants’ feelings toward the brokers and professional passeurs who handle the desert crossing are more unequivocally negative. This trepidation translates into a silence that falls over the migrants during the land journeys, partly through fear of being intercepted by the police, but also through the terror engendered by the experience which often has lasting psychological repercussions.

Irregular migrants are often treated as exploitable, since they have no legal status or hope of redress. As one interviewee observes: ‘they are a perfect commodity, since they are flesh which self-transports itself.’ Even smugglers described by the migrants as more humane might, nonetheless, suddenly change their behaviour and become abusive and violent.

Despite the disequilibrium in the relationship between migrant and smuggler, some migrants manage to overcome this passive role, exploiting their capacity to negotiate either the conditions by which they are moved, or, most often, the price paid for the smugglers’ services. As one migrant interviewee remarks, in some cases there even emerges a form of business partnership, ‘he [a friend] did not have the money [for the sea journey] and we talked with him [the smuggler]. We [a small group of friends travelling together] can gather several people who could pay more than US $1,000, but you should do us a favour. And you do this favour for our friend’ (Interview with migrants n. 19). The friend was allowed to make the sea journey for free.

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