The people smugglers of the Mediterranean

Members of the Maltese armed forces toss bottles of water to a group of around 180 migrants after their vessel ran into engine trouble, off the coast of Malta

The death toll on the Mediterranean in the last few weeks has been the equivalent to a sinking of a Titanic. There are no pictures of a sea of floating bodies. A composite image of the death toll of the past two decades would show tens of thousands of corpses in its water, amassed on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

The smugglers who arrange for the voyages have been called ‘slave drivers’ of the 21st century by Matteo Renzi. David Cameron similarly calls them ‘criminal human traffickers’ who conduct ‘this trade in human life.

European ministers of ‘security’, ‘defence’, the ‘interior’, etc. are intent on propagating the myth of the human trafficker. The British foreign secretary said: ‘We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.’ The EU’s has now decided to administer an expanding blockade and to ‘capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers’. This will be an uphill battle against Libyan coastal cities and an unlimited supply of inflatable rubber dinghies. As a smuggler from Zuwara in western Libya says: ‘Anyone here who has no money can sell their apartment, buy a boat, and organise a smuggling trip. It’s a very easy formula.

Smugglers are said to purchase old fishing vessels with indifference, and to oversell tickets with a mild kind of sadism. The smugglers, a reckless motley crew of bribed Libyan coastguards, established kingpins, former fisherman, and a small crew of skippers and touts—who are usually hopeful migrants themselves—are congealed into a venal and fictive generic middleman, who ‘tricks’ innocent travellers embarking on and gambling with their own fate.

But smugglers are in most cases merely the “poor man’s” agent; a deregulated, brazen, relatively cheap and lucrative travel agency for refugees and people sans papiers. Unseaworthy vessels, bought by smugglers for a one-time use, sink and capsize whether they are overcrowded or not, whether a Mare Nostrum is there to intervene at the last minute or not. If the EU actually wanted to save lives, they could donate their fleet of FRONTEX ships to the smugglers—instead of indulging in false indignation and a predictable humanitarianism that proverbially always arrives too late.

People on the move being represented as easy prey for unspecified bands of ruthless traffickers is also a colonial script. This script assumes that migrants are ignorant and passive rather than clear-headed and strategic. Arriving in Europe with a temporary visa—the route for the vast majority of the EU’s ‘irregular’ migrants and ‘unauthorized’ refugees—can be prohibitively expensive. Waiting for or purchasing sundry documentation—applications, forged certificates and the like—is a matter of routine, but also of extravagant unofficial commissions. As most “boat people” in Spain, Italy or Libya will tell you, they could not afford a papered passage or the safer, longer and more expensive land routes through Turkey. Apart from the devastating rise of refugees from Syria and Eritrea, most people who have crossed the Mediterranean in the past decade have been, for example, graduates from Nigeria, mechanics from Senegal, tailors from Bangladesh, or dropouts from Tunisian universities. Before ‘heading out to sea, they have already crossed the Sahara – a journey that may kill more travellers than the Mediterranean’. People are not only fleeing conflict and poverty, ‘they are in revolt: against injustice, indignity, impunity and institutionalised corruption.

Akpan Udo Afia, a Nigerian migrant, wrote his local colonial officer in 1934 requesting a permit needed to move in and out of the colonially divided borders established within West Africa: ‘At the beams of your light we are protected to travel into any part of the Globe for purpose of livelyhood […] oblige our unlimited desire.’ Afia’s request for a travel permit was denied, but as the self-evident tone of his demand suggests, he took off anyway, on a small stretch that was ‘part of the Globe’. He paid his way through customs offices and hired the services of canoe smugglers in Eastern Nigeria. Afia’s ‘unlimited desire’ was a spiraling quest to make ends meet, to survive and to try to thrive by bypassing colonial border regimes. Colonial bureaucrats, like those in the EU, responded principally by installing a monstrous transnational chain of jails or ‘detention centers’. Expectations and itineraries, like Afia’s, were made possible by imperial history, and are now a reality arranged by a whole spectrum of unofficial travel agents who will keep the ‘world inexorably on the move.

Further Reading