While this report constitutes a much-needed summary on the gender dynamics in committing smuggling present in the cases from the Knowledge Portal, it also stands as proof of the incomplete and limited nature of our knowledge of migrant smuggling and its impacts, and how it is addressed by criminal justice systems and practitioners around the globe. Dramatic cases involving migrant suffering and death dominate most of the narratives on the smuggling of migrants, but the data reveal the latter is a much more complex enterprise, in many cases less tragic than its mediated representations may suggest, but still poorly understood.
Worldwide, data sources and research on the smuggling of migrants are scant. Furthermore, sources documenting the experiences of women in migrant smuggling are limited, and when available, often incomplete. There is also limited recognition of the negative impacts emerging from the inconsistent implementation of the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol. In particular, how the uneven handling of similar situations across the world in application of national law may impact women’s wellbeing and safety.
The criminalization of migrant smuggling-related conduct has gendered consequences. Women often facilitate the illicit movement of people known personally to them and with whom they have a close, personal connection and for no financial or material return. Many States Parties to the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol punish the procurement of illegal entry when not committed for a financial or material benefit, which falls outside of the criminalization requirement of the Protocol.69 This has led to the criminalization of women for acts others than those of concern to the Protocol, which may enhance their vulnerability, especially in situations of conflict or violence.
On the other hand, most women who participate in migrant smuggling do so seeking some financial and material benefits. In fact, over 70 percent of the women whose cases were identified in the sample participated in the smuggling of third parties or people not known to them in exchange for some sort of compensation. It appears that most women who participate in migrant smuggling do so as part of their personal attempts to improve their quality of life.
And yet, most women in the sample experienced varying levels of financial vulnerability which played a role in their decision to participate in migrant smuggling for profit. Many of the women who participated in migrant smuggling were from socio-economically marginalized groups. Among the women apprehended, charged and convicted for migrant smuggling related offences in this sample were indigenous people, irregular migrants, blue collar employees, single mothers, and single heads of household. Many held low- paying jobs as caregivers, supermarket cashiers or office clerks. Interestingly, the sample also showed two peaks in the involvement of women in smuggling related conduct: between the ages of 21 and 30, and between the ages of 51 and 60, when employment opportunities for elder women tend to be limited. Women were often paid only small amounts of money for their involvement in migrant smuggling. At times they were paid less than what they had been promised, and in fact sometimes they were not compensated at all.
There was no evidence that the financial returns generated by the women through their participation in the smuggling of migrants had led to their economic or social mobility. Most offenders charged with migrant smuggling for a financial benefit in the sample simply sought to generate an immediate if often modest return that could allow them to cover immediate, pressing needs. The data challenge the characterization of migrant smuggling as a highly profitable activity – especially in the case of women.
The data also indicated women operate in various roles in the migrant smuggling market. In most of the cases examined, they operated independently as part of individual attempts to generate income, or in pairs, often with spouses or romantic partners; less often they participated in large-scale migrant smuggling operations or among those taking place in multiple countries. Most women worked within their own communities and countries of residence. Women held a wide array of roles: they transported migrants across segments of their journeys; they manufactured, secured and distributed counterfeit documents; they housed and fed migrants in transit; they coordinated smuggling activities for and alongside other smugglers; they recruited migrants and other smugglers; they also provided care for children, the elderly and other vulnerable people.
The extent to which women lead or command migrant smuggling efforts on the other hand is not quite clear. In the sample there were references to women as coordinators of multiple activities – for example, arranging complex travel logistics with the support of different actors. There were also occasional references to leadership and/or to women being ‘leads’ or ‘right hands.’ It was not clear if these characterizations were based on migrants’ claims concerning their experience with the women, or on the perception of law enforcement of women’s involvement. While some cases do reveal high levels of control and involvement on the part of women, the overall structure of the migrant smuggling operations identified in this sample did not appear to be hierarchical in nature. Rather, most groups were comprised of independent actors forging collaborations with one another. These are observations that other smuggling scholars have raised regarding the structural composition of the market.70
There was no indication that any of the women in this sample engaged in violent activity. Furthermore, there were also no references to the women involved in migrant smuggling being connected to other organized criminal markets. Additional data and further research are needed in this regard, especially given the prevalence of crimes against migrants along migration routes worldwide. The study was not able to establish either whether there are common trends in sentencing women in migrant smuggling cases, or whether the sentences given to women differ from those given to men.
In sum, the roles and motivations of the women participating in migrant smuggling-related tasks are varied and complex. Yet their backgrounds tend to be quite similar: most of the women in the sample were working class, low income residents of marginalized communities along the migrant journey with limited paths to social or economic mobility, working independently or in loose connection with others like themselves in an attempt to assist friends or family members reach a safe country, or to improve their own quality of life.