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European University Institute - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

Human trafficking in the spotlight: Interview with expert Luigi Achilli

In this interview, migration expert Luigi Achilli discusses the thin line between smuggling and trafficking, reevaluates traditional narratives of victimhood, and suggests policy-makers should consider the reasons behind the choices migrants make as well as the nuanced layers of human interactions.

28 July 2023 | Research

MIgration expert Luigi Achilli speaks in an event

Luigi, 30 July is the United Nations Day against Human Trafficking. You have been working on human trafficking and human smuggling for many years, since 2014. What are the main findings of your research?

My research delves deep into the intricate realms of human smuggling and trafficking, offering a holistic view that challenges the conventional narratives surrounding human trafficking and human smuggling.

First of all, human smuggling is more multifaceted than solely an avenue of exploitation. In my research and fieldwork, I found strong evidence of solidarity, trust, and cooperation between facilitators (or smugglers) and their customers. These bonds often arise from shared backgrounds, mutual goals, and the necessity to rely on each other in treacherous conditions. This is what I call ‘Layered Human Interactions’.

In several instances, while exploitation is present in smuggling, it is not always against the will of the person being smuggled. Some individuals knowingly and willingly engage in exploitative conditions to enhance their mobility, particularly when they see no other viable alternative to escape dire circumstances. This dimension compels us to reevaluate traditional narratives of victimhood, even when pertaining to categories of migrants typically viewed as vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children. Within these contexts, there are instances of conscious choices leading to exploitation.

Another significant aspect of my research focuses on the thin line between smuggling and trafficking. Concisely, human smuggling involves the consent of the person being smuggled and is primarily a service for border-crossing, while human trafficking involves the exploitation of individuals, often through force, fraud, or coercion, regardless of cross-border movement. The relationship between vulnerable individuals and certain networks can both benefit and exploit them. One of the most striking revelations is how state-imposed migration policies inadvertently increase vulnerabilities, blurring those lines between smuggling and trafficking. The absence of legal entry channels and the increasing restrictions often compel individuals to seek alternate, often dangerous, routes, making them susceptible to trafficking networks.

Finally, in my recent research on global organized crime and terrorism, I have found that although authorities occasionally observe intersections among smuggling groups with drugs, arms, and human organizations, the evidence predominantly suggests that these groups do not operate these varied undertakings simultaneously. When interactions between transnational organized crime factions and smuggling networks do arise, they typically involve smuggling networks paying fees or 'road tolls' to navigate territories controlled by the larger crime syndicates.


What recommendations would you give to policy-makers working on migration?

Decision-makers should recognise that focusing only on strengthening borders and externalising asylum responsibility to third countries (e.g. Libya, Tunisia, Turkey) will not diminish the power of smuggling and trafficking networks. We also need to reduce the 'demand' for smugglers’ services rather than just curb the 'supply'.

Reducing the demand for smugglers means opening new channels of legal entry and reinforcing existing ones, especially for refugees and asylum seekers who represent a large share of those who embark on dangerous and irregular journeys. It also includes measures like granting humanitarian visas, creating humanitarian corridors between transit countries and Europe, expanding resettlement programmes, and developing alternative legal routes for migrants.

The European Council should find a common agreement on the long-needed reform of the Dublin Regulation. The core of the reform was the introduction of relocation quotas for each EU country. Yet, member states have not managed to resolve their differences.


What do you have in the pipeline to continue your work on this very relevant topic?

I plan to conduct further fieldwork, focusing on the experiences of migrants and refugees in different geopolitical contexts. This will allow a deeper understanding of the variety of experiences and the reasons behind the choices migrants make. Additionally, this December 'Global Human Smuggling' will be published by John Hopkins University Press, a volume I have had the privilege of co-editing alongside Prof. David Kyle. In this comprehensive work, our contributors delve into human smuggling across diverse regions, examining its deep-rooted historical, social, economic, and cultural underpinnings, as well as its broader political ramifications.

Finally, I intend to continue my collaboration with international organisations and governments to advocate for policy changes rooted in my research findings, ensuring that policies mirror the complexities and realities of human smuggling and trafficking.


On this UN Day, what message would you like to convey?

On the occasion of UN Day Against Human Trafficking, I would like to emphasize that the reality of human smuggling and trafficking is far more intricate than often portrayed. While the mainstream perspective views it solely as an exploitative business, there are nuanced layers of human interactions, motives, and circumstances that we must consider.

We need to go beyond simplistic labelling of individuals as 'victims' or 'exploiters' and aim to understand the complexities of their experiences. Simplistic and restrictive measures might not always serve the best interests of those involved, and a more comprehensive approach is essential.

Shuman Short with Luigi Achilli on 'Human smuggling'

Schuman Short with Luigi Achilli on Human smuggling

Last update: 28 July 2023

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