How desperation and innovation combined to create a business
A DEFINING image of the new wave of globalisation—and the attempts to hold it back—is a newly arrived migrant on a European beach, clutching a mobile phone and hoping for a newlife. Never before have rich countries raised their walls so high to keep out refugees and the poor. Yet never have people tried so hard to leap over them anyway.
The most important causes of this migration are wars in places like Syria and Somalia, and demography and poor prospects across Africa and the Middle East. New enablers are vital too: mobile phones, the internet, WhatsApp and Facebook. What is less understood is how business has changed this world. In “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour”, Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano, both researchers, explain how the numbers of people arriving in Europe have been made possible because of the emergence of innovative and opportunistic entrepreneurs.
People-smuggling is jus tanother part of the vast decentralised organised-crime economy. Those in the trade are not necessarily evil or part of a grand conspiracy: they are ordinary folk drawn into organised crime by proﬁts and the prospect of a better life. And policies, particularly in Europe, thatare intended to stop migration often have the eﬀect only of rendering it more exploitative and dangerous.
To make this argument, the authors leap around, with vivid reporting from Niger, Libya, the Balkans, Turkey and Egypt, among other places. Their primary focus is not the migrants, but the smugglers—the people who make it possible to get to countries without a visa or a passport. Crackdowns and demand stimulate supply. Both in Turkey and Libya, it was Syrian refugees—and their ability to pay tens of thousands of dollars—that drove smugglers to develop sophisticated systems. Some refugees are even given barcodes to scan when they arrive in Europe, which help release their payments from escrow. These were built on existing systems, particularly the hawala networks of informal money transfer used by merchants across the developing world.
The book’s key contention—that tighter rules inspire entrepreneurs to create new, more dangerous and criminal smuggling routes—is persuasive. But it could be more so. Although the blistering criticism of European policy seems right, a section at the end which brings in American policy is weaker. The authors are certainly right that crackdowns on the border with Mexico have created business for criminal cartels. But they are on weaker ground when they suggest it has not deterred migrants. Partly for economic reasons, more Mexicans return from America than go the other way.
That sort of outcome may eventually be the result of Europe’s shift against migrants too. People-smugglers may well be saviours to some of their clients. But they are exploiters of plenty of others. In the long run death and danger does deter. The more criminal the networks are, the more they will be shunned.
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