The character of the "human smuggler" is often presented in the mainstream political and media discourses as a depraved, cruel and inhumane villain, nested in his dark "criminal networks", often cited as the sole reason for the drownings in the Mediterranean and other deaths along the EU borders.
The "EU's Action Plan against migrant Smuggling", for example, describes the cruelty of the smugglers as follows:
"Ruthless criminal networks organize the journeys of large numbers of migrants desperate to reach the EU. They make substantial gains while putting the migrants' lives at risk. To maximize their profits, smugglers often squeeze hundreds of migrants onto unseaworthy boats – including small inflatable boats or end-of-life cargo ships – or into trucks. Scores of migrants drown at sea, suffocate in containers or perish in deserts."
In the media, the term "human smuggler" and "human trafficker" are often used interchangeably – yet the difference between the two is crucial.
Human trafficking is defined in the international law as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, [...] deception, [...] to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation" (Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Article 3). Trafficking thus necessarily includes the use of either coercion, threat or deception in order to force someone into exploitation. In its very definition, human trafficking is not based on informed and voluntary consent.
Human smuggling, on the other hand, might involve elements of deception, yet it is usually pretty clear to people involved in it what will happen: in exchange for money, they will be transported across a border, the passage through which is "illegal" for them.
Of course smuggling is, in comparison to other transfers over the border, often very brutal, difficult, life-threateningly dangerous and disproportionately costly. And it of course opens the door for further exploitation, extortion, deception and ultimately human trafficking.
But all of this precisely because smuggling involves illegal cross-border transfers. It needs to be kept in mind that the illegalisation of border-crossing for some, creates a very lucrative and entirely illegalised market of facilitation of illegal passage across borders. As any black market, this one too is entirely deregulated and thus enables full blown exploitation. But this is inherent to any black market, or indeed any market full stop.
The structural conditions that enable the thriving of such a vibrant and lucrative black market for smuggling, lie precisely in the restrictive migration policies of the EU, which exclude a large portion of the world's population from traveling legally. The increased budgets for more extensive border controls and more advanced technological devices (CO2 detectors, heart-beat detectors, thermal cameras...), are driving the invention of new, and always more cruel and inhumane, ways in which people try to pass through the border undetected.
Yet the moral indignation present in the mainstream discourses seems to be directed mainly at the human smugglers – the media discourses additionally directing at them the moral outrage, spilling over from the one aimed at human traffickers.
The focus on the human smugglers often takes away the focus from – or event attempts to directly mask – the route causes of the deaths and exploitation that happens on the borders of Europe. As a popular slogan puts it so well: "seeing migration as the problem is the problem". Illegalisation of people's movement is the problem. Strengthening borders is the problem. Both force people to search for ways to cross the border and this creates a black market for border-crossing. When human smuggling becomes cruel, disproportionately costly or inhumane, this is a by-product of the much larger problem, which precisely the focus on human smuggling is intended to minimise or mask.