Down with Hypocrisy, Again

Over at Democratic Audit UK, Mollie Gerver has an interesting post arguing that the European Union should decriminalize people smuggling ― that is, helping consenting individuals to cross borders which they lack permission to cross, in exchange for payment. (Consent is very important here: it’s what distinguishes “smuggling” from “trafficking,” the moving of people by force or fraud.) Having once written that Canada’s anti-smuggling laws are a form of organized hypocrisy, I agree. If anything, I would go even further than Ms. Gerver.

Ms. Gerver points that it is not illegal for a refugee to pay a smuggler, or to come to a country where he or she applies for protection. Even those whose applications for refugee status are denied are only deported, not punished. Smugglers, by contrast, face stiff criminal sanctions if they are caught, and this, Ms. Gerver explains, creates all sorts of perverse incentives. For example, smugglers “require extensive intelligence information to evade border control officials, which is often only possible by joining forces with those involved in arms trading and human trafficking networks.” Even worse, “[t]o avoid getting caught and arrested, smugglers often also take violent actions against migrants and refugees.” Moreover, because they face criminal sanctions whether or not they endanger the people they transport, smugglers are incentivized to carry as many people as they can, regardless of the risks, so as to maximize the profits.

Ms. Gerver proposes that smuggling be decriminalized, and that smugglers only face criminal punishment actions that are independently wrong, whether abuse or endangerment of the migrants, arms trafficking, or even “fraud if they fail to warn migrants and refugees about the risks of the journey.” In this way, smugglers will actually have an incentive to avoid, not to engage in, these sorts of behaviour. In Ms. Gerver’s view, such an approach would not be inconsistent with turning potential refugees away if they are intercepted before reaching safe haven, and generally with trying to reduce the number of those who reach their destinations and claim asylum. Indeed, she believes that “smuggling may also be easier to stop if decriminalised,” because smugglers might become “less nervous about being caught” once they know that they will not face sanctions if they are.

I’m not sure quite how seriously Ms. Gerver means her suggestions that decriminalization would be a way of reducing the number of refugees able to claim asylum in the West. I doubt that the suggestion is correct, because lowering the price of smuggling to those who engage in it will also lower the price their clients have to pay, and thus attract more of them, many more, I suspect, than would be stopped en route. Ms. Gerver might not think that this would be a good thing. But I certainly do. Indeed, I now believe, as I did not when I wrote the post linked to above, that states have no right to keep out any migrants, whether they are fleeing natural disasters, war, political persecution, or misery caused by the same sort of bad government that makes natural disasters into humanitarian catastrophes and causes wars and persecution. But you need not share this view to think that allowing more people who are genuine refugees as the term is generally understood to come to safety would be a good thing.

Indeed, you do not even need to believe that to want to change a policy that makes it more likely that refugees will be victimized by smugglers. To repeat, this policy is one of rank hypocrisy. We say that we welcome refugees, but actually we put barriers that not only make it difficult for them to come, but ensure that those who make the attempt are more likely to suffer or even die. That this barriers are invisible makes it worse. Ostensibly we protect vulnerable people from exploitation. In reality, as I argued in my earlier post on this topic, and as Ms. Gerver confirms, we create incentives for the smugglers to exploit them. To the somewhat more specific points Ms. Gerver makes, I would add the following, more general, one that I made in my earlier post:

[a]s with drugs, illegality ― created by the state ― reduces the number of willing sellers and increases the risks for which each of them wants to be compensated out of the price he charges. … But it seems quite wrong for the state to manufacture the conditions that give rise to the appearances of exploitation and then blame, and even criminalize, others for that exploitation.

The same situation prevailed with sex work under the legislative framework that the Supreme Court struck down in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101. As I wrote in commenting on that decision, exploitation of sex workers by pimps is no small part a predictable consequence of the illegality of “living off the avails” of prostitution:

no law can make demand for protection of and assistance to prostitutes vanish. By criminalizing the supply that emerges to meet this demand, law makes supply more scarce, and therefore more costly, both in purely financial terms, and in the overall exactions the suppliers impose on their customers. An illegal activity inevitably attracts more “tough” ― read, abusive ― people than a legal one would.

Parliament was forced to change the way it regulated sex work after Bedford, but the new legal framework is, if anything, even more similar to that which applies to people smuggling, both in form and in effect. Only one side of the consensual  transaction, the one allegedly exploiting the other, is criminalized (in the case of smuggling, the supply; in the case of sex work, the demand), but the putative victim is endangered, and probably also stigmatized, as a result. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, as with sex work and other activities considered reprehensible, regulations that ostensibly protect people from their ill-effects are actually meant to scare or disgust them out of engaging in these activities; or at least that, even if this is not the intent, the supporters of such laws really do not mind if they this effect.

The title of my comment on Bedford was “Down with Hypocrisy.” I still feel that way about the criminalization of sex work ― or of the demand for sex work. And I still feel that way about the criminalization of human smuggling ― or, to describe it less hypocritically, of remunerated assistance to people crossing borders that states had no business preventing them from crossing in the first place. Hypocritical laws enacted with, at best, a reckless disregard for the misery they cause do not belong on the statute book of any decent polity.

H/t: Michael Plaxton

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

3 thoughts on “Down with Hypocrisy, Again”

  1. Excellent piece. I agree: decriminalization may increase the number of refugees who can reach Europe, because “lowering the price of smuggling to those who engage in it will also lower the price their clients have to pay, and thus attract more of them, many more, I suspect, than would be stopped en route.” However, it may be that demand will increase if smuggling is safer, and so smugglers will continue to charge roughly the same amount, or more. I suppose we would need actual data to find out.

    You also write that I might not think it is a good thing for more refugees reach Europe. On the contrary: I think that would be excellent. My point was simply that those who want a reduction in the number of refugees needn’t support criminalising smugglers.

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