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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Migration Merchants: Human Smuggling from Ecuador and China


Human smuggling is a phenomenon that further blurs the already fuzzy boundaries between economic migrant and refugee, legal and illegal immigrant. Many state policy-makers and NGOs are concerned that if they admit immigrants or refugees who use human smugglers, this will encourage smugglers to further break immigration laws. This paper questions the assumption that illegal migrants are like any other illegal commodity crossing state borders. Kyle argues that most migrant smugglers are social bandits who may be considered unsavory and even dangerous by their home societies, but not as "criminals." Even states that are "victims" of human smugglers do not uniformly paint them as criminal and evil. In contrast to common thieves and smugglers, there is a highly politicized historical dimension to both the motivations of social bandits and to those who see them as either criminals (i.e., transnational organized crime) or "freedom fighters." Although migration research has a significant role to play in the understanding of transnational social banditry, current migration theory does not sufficiently explain the sharp rise in human smuggling around the world, especially in terms of how it conceptualizes "demand." To illustrate these points, special attention will be given to emigration from Ecuador to the United States and Spain, including the organization of illicit "migrant export schemes.”

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