Smuggling and trafficking: both are bad, but they are NOT the same thing

Photo by Dannielle Blumenthal Wikimedia Commons

We need to take a dive into some of the differences between “smuggling” and “trafficking”, and, before we start, both are bad and both can involve exploitation. Daniel Sohege explains:

In the simplest terms, and we’ll get into why this isn’t simple in a bit, trafficking, more often than not, is a longer term form of exploitation than smuggling, which is often seen as a one off transaction.

Some people will also add that smuggling is voluntary and trafficking is not. Now, on the surface as a purely technical statement, this is kind of true, but people really aren’t excitedly looking to be smuggled and the gangs which do so prey on vulnerabilities.

Where there is a clear technical distinction is that smuggling occurs across territorial borders, whereas trafficking can occur within the borders of a state. Trafficking is happening right now across the UK for example, to UK citizens.

Here’s where it gets a little murkier though. Yes, technically smuggling is a one off transaction. How do you think people afford it? Here’s where exploitation comes in, or at least one way. People can be forced into debt bondage to pay for it for example.

When we look at smuggling in regards to children we also face more complexities. Can a child really give the informed consent for their being smuggled to be classed as “voluntary”? Simple answer, no.

Why is the difference important, therefore? We see all the time how news reports, politicians etc, will call channel crossings, which are often, but not always, smuggling, “trafficking”. At times, it is a simple misunderstanding; at times it is more deliberate, though.

Trafficking is very specifically about the exploitation of individuals. That is its sole purpose. Smuggling can create exploitation, and often times does, but it is not an essential component of the action. Does that make sense?

Both are run by criminal gangs. Both can lead to the exploitation of individuals, but trafficking ALWAYS leads to the exploitation of individuals. Despite some definitions, smuggling is not necessarily “voluntary”, so again it gets murkier.

When you conflate the two, though, you miss key nuances which are important, and this can lead to misunderstanding, and, as with the Nationality and Borders Act. attempts to criminalise innocent people.

Not everyone who crosses the channel in a small boat, for example, is being smuggled or trafficked. We have seen a rise in what are termed “self-facilitated crossings”, groups of people getting together and organising the crossing themselves, including obtaining the dinghy.

When you start to term every crossing as trafficking, though, you automatically criminalise those people who, due to quite a substantial lack of other options, have no other means of attempting to reach the UK to seek safety, which is kind of a big deal.

98 per cent of people who cross the channel in small boats seek asylum. They are de facto “asylum seekers”. Roughly 70 per cenr of those seeking asylum get it on first instance or appeal. So we are seeing people who have a genuine need for asylum being called traffickers.

A lot of people dismiss this as just a semantic argument. It isn’t though. Trafficking and smuggling are both bad. Trafficking is not all channel crossings, though, and smuggling doesn’t always end with the exploitation of people in the way trafficking does.