5 Things You Need to Know: Human Smuggling

Slavery didn't go out with Lincoln.
While waiting to be smuggled into Israel, African migrants sleep inside a store, dreaming of a better life. (Photo: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Apr 20, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that European police had arrested 98 alleged members of a Hungarian human smuggling ring. The network is said to have been trafficking Vietnamese “gardeners” into Britain. Each gardener paid the smugglers $28,500 for the service of being sneaked into the U.K. An estimated 35,000 illegal Vietnamese immigrants have already been slipped into Britain, where one worker’s annual earnings can feed a family of 10 for 10 years in Vietnam.

The smugglers make a living, the smuggled send life-sustaining funds back home, and the host country receives an infusion of cheap labor. Everybody seems to be winning. And still law enforcement swoops in with the big buzz kill! What is law enforcement’s problem?

Well, sneaking desperate immigrants from dozens of troubled nations into as many unwitting host countries has at least five sobering realities….

1) Many immigrants can't pay the full smuggling fee and are forced into slave labor, which makes them ideal—as in expendable—workers for illegal enterprises. British police uncovered 6,900 U.K. marijuana plantations last year—and they certainly didn’t find them all. “[One] Vietnamese 'gardener' can run six premises," explained Andre Baker, deputy director of Britain's Serious Organized Crime Agency, to the AP. As lucrative as growing marijuana can be, prostitution is probably the most common criminal activity foisted upon “trafficked” immigrants. In the eyes of the law, trafficking is distinct from smuggling. Traffic of humans involves exploiting the migrant, such as for forced labor, drug running or prostitution. The pure smuggling of people—facilitating an individual’s illegal entry into a country where the individual is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident—is less malignant in comparison. But many of the criminals who smuggle people cannot resist using their human cargos’ illegal status to grease a slide into contemporary slavery.

2) Very often traveling and living conditions are inhumane: The migrants are packed into trucks or boats like sides of beef, except with less care to avoid spoilage. Fatal accidents occur frequently. Officials have lost count of how many people traveling in small, overcrowded boats have drowned while attempting to reach Europe. Traveling from Central America to the United States, or from the Netherlands to the U.K., immigrants have suffocated by the dozens in trucks and shipping containers. After landing in the destination country, the new arrivals are at the mercy of their smugglers, who are not steeped in mercy. Syndicates that smuggle humans benefit from weak legislation, huge profits and a relatively low risk of arrest.

3) If you can read this, you may live in a destination country. Thailand is a destination country for men, women and children who are trafficked for commercial sex and forced labor, including begging. India is a source country for men, women and children trafficked for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. India is also a destination for women and girls from Nepal and Bangladesh trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.  Nepali children are trafficked to India for forced labor in circus shows.  Indian women are trafficked to the Middle East for commercial sexual exploitation. Australia is a destination country for human trafficking from East Asia, South East Asia, Eastern Europe, China, Korea and Thailand. Burmese men, women and children are trafficked for sexual and labor exploitation in Thailand, China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Macau and Pakistan. Japan  is a destination country for women and children who are trafficked from China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America for sexual and labor exploitation. The Kyrgyz Republic is a source and transit country for men and women trafficked from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and South Asia for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Men and women are trafficked to Kazakhstan and Russia as forced labor in the agricultural, construction and textile industries. Kyrgyz and foreign women are trafficked to the U.A.E, Kazakhstan, China, South Korea, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Thailand, Germany and Syria for commercial sexual exploitation. Women and girls are trafficked to the Netherlands from Nigeria, Bulgaria, China, Sierra Leone, Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe for sexual exploitation and forced labor. Men are trafficked to the Netherlands from India, China, Bangladesh and Turkey for forced labor and sexual exploitation. Men, women and children from the former Soviet Union and wider Eastern Europe are trafficked through Bulgaria to Western and Southern Europe for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Ethnic Roma women and children are highly vulnerable to trafficking. Bulgarian women and some men are trafficked internally, primarily to resort areas along the Black Sea for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. The United States is principally a transit and destination country for trafficking in persons, primarily women and children.

This list, perhaps exhausting, is by no means exhaustive.

4) Hardened criminal gangs have branched into human smuggling. Traditionally, migrant facilitators have been amateurs of the same ethnic origin as those they were smuggling. As far back as 2008, Mexican drug cartels merged human smuggling with drug trafficking. Migrants are forced to act as drug "mules" as the price of passage. "This used to be a family business. The coyote and the migrant were from the same town; they were connected," said Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez of Arizona State University. "Now, what's been created is this structure of smuggling in the hands of really nasty people who only treat the migrant as a commodity."

5) People snatching is a fishier and fishier business. In its favor, the global fishing industry supplies jobs and food to billions of people, but the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) points out that fishing boats are commonly floated to transfer and transport drugs to West Africa. Fishing vessels are also ideal for smuggling migrants, weapons, terrorists and wildlife. Increasingly, the very crews on the boats are themselves trafficked. Deceiving young men to work in Thailand’s extremely harsh fishing industry—think of it as Deadliest Catch with less sleep, starvation rations, routine beatings, no pay and no way off the boat—is a new pattern of human trafficking. Ring members pay 3,000 to 5,000 baht (less than $160) to agents who persuade or abduct young men to work on fishing trawlers. These agents’ methods range from false job ads to drugging victims and dragging them on board the boats. In July 2003, six fishing trawlers sailed with about 100 crewmembers from Samut Sakhon province to fish in Indonesian waters. The trawlers returned to Thailand in July 2007, but about 40 crewmembers did not. They had died on the job. The intervening years have seen conditions deteriorate for migrant fishermen, including 17 Vietnamese who perished with sinking of South Korean boat No. 1 Insung off the coast of Antarctica in December 2010.

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