The terms smuggling and trafficking are often used interchangeably. But experts and scholars often struggle to define these terms and the nuances between them. To shed light on this distinction, we spoke with Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the 2009 book The Snakehead, and Skadden Fellow and Attorney Lauren Burke. A report by the International Council on Human Rights provides a helpful overview of these issues and their implications for migrant persons; full article with comments and analysis on this after the break.
The terms smuggling and trafficking are often used interchangeably. But experts and scholars often struggle to define these terms and the nuances between them. The International Council on Human Rights draft report "International Migration, Human Smuggling, and Human Rights," published in October 2009, explores the issue of defining trafficking and smuggling.

The author, Pia Oberoi, defines a Trafficked Person as "a person who is coerced to travel to another country for the purpose of exploitation". Defining a Smuggled Person, she states: "regardless of whether he/she is a migrant, or an asylum seeker, a smuggled person is one who travels voluntarily but illegally to another country with the assistance of a third party" (20).

Coercion or Free Will?
Oberoi is pointing out that a trafficked person is coerced while a smuggled person chooses this form of movement voluntarily. This difference in intention and motivation is the main divider between trafficking and smuggling. However, what happens when the intention of the person is unclear?

For instance, when a child is brought to the U.S. from China, are they considered to be trafficked, forced to come to the U.S. by their parents and snakeheads? Or do the children have free will in the matter? In which case, the children would be considered smuggled.  Another possibility, is that the answer is not so black and white.

As Oberoi explains, definitions are necessary so the rights of individuals can be defined. However, Oberoi argues that "The fact that distinctions can be made between groups of people, however, does not mean that they are not hazardous to apply in practice" (20). The author is describing the everyday dilemmas that immigrants and immigration officials experience as everyone tries to navigate definitions which overlap, exclude, or simply bewilder many. She notes that often people fall between categories, or across categories as their journey continues.

What do smugglers provide?

Oberoi points out that smuggling is often carried out on a very small-scale, by individual entrepreneurs, who support transport across a particular border for a moderate fee. The informal groups of agents will often provide food, shelter, coaching for immigration issues and more. However, in some cases when someone cannot pay a fee, long term payment is based on slave labor to repay the debt. In many cases, these individuals are considered trafficked after they are enslaved .

While trafficking and smuggling might be used interchangeably, the nuance and gray area which exists within these definitions is not something to be overlooked. Are the Chinese children smuggled with their parents consent? Other questions that arrive regarding this issue are age, and prior knowledge of the plan to go to America.

For more information on the report by the International Council for Human Rights Policy, visit their project site.



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