The Other Side of Smuggling

There’s a difference between smuggling and trafficking—but not in the eyes of the law

| November-December 2011

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    Image by Flickr user: Marius Arneson / Creative Commons

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Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg smuggled thousands of Jews to safety during the Holocaust. We recognize their heroism, yet most developed countries—including the United States and Canada—prosecute those who do the same today for refugees fleeing Iran, Somalia, and other nations in turmoil, writes Carolyn Morris in The United Church Observer (June 2011).

Smugglers are condemned as roundly as if they were trafficking in sexual slavery, notes University of Michigan law professor James Hathaway. Indeed, recently proposed immigration legislation in Canada uses the terms smuggling and trafficking interchangeably. Yet they are very different things. According to Morris: “While human trafficking involves the exploitation of vulnerable migrants, human smuggling means helping people bypass border controls to get into a foreign country they do not have permission to enter.”

Religious and political refugees fleeing persecution are granted a level of protection from the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, which, reports Morris, acknowledges that “sometimes one’s circumstances are so precarious, and the danger to life so great, that applying for a visa or even buying a plane ticket could have dire consequences.” Yet no such asylum exists for those who enable refugee flight.

Naturally, some smugglers are motivated by ethics, in the tradition of Schindler and Wallenberg, while others are motivated by profit. “Human smuggling is not always a nice business,” says Morris, “but for many people, it’s a necessary service.” Ironically, heightened border controls make the process even more desperate for those fleeing jail, torture, or execution in their homeland and the business even more lucrative and appealing to smugglers motivated by money rather than morality. “In [the] effort to stamp out human smuggling,” concludes Morris, “we are actually encouraging its most sinister form.”

168-cover-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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