07/24/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Murders in Italy Highlight the Victimization of Smuggled Migrants


Italy's arrest overnight of five people for their involvement in the death of dozens of smuggled migrants who were either violently murdered or perished through engine-fume inhalation, shines a light on the deep connection between the two crimes of "migrant smuggling" and human trafficking.

By definition, migrant smuggling involves one person helping another to move into a country without authorization in return for payment. In international rhetoric, politicians typically save very little sympathy for smuggled migrants -- who are seen as economic opportunists and willing participants in their own fate.

Human trafficking on the other hand, can involve breach of immigration laws but that is not always the case. The essence of this crime is moving a person into -- or maintaining them in -- a situation of exploitation from which they cannot escape. Women, men and children are trafficked for exploitation in brothels and factories, on farms and fishing boats, even into private homes. World leaders, from President Obama to Pope Francis have united to condemn human trafficking as a form of modern day slavery.

But what happens when the apparently victimless crime of migrant smuggling morphs into trafficking? What happens when smugglers decide to increase their profit by exploiting those who have paid for their travel services? How does this challenge our ideas of smuggled migrants as complicit in their own misfortune and victims of trafficking as persons entitled to special protection and support? Can we really turn our backs on smuggled migrants who are raped, tortured, subject to extortion and sometimes even killed?

The overlap between smuggling and trafficking is all around us. We don't yet know exactly what happened to that group of migrants found dead in Italy but recent experiences indicate that the story likely involves deception, extortion and extreme violence.

Eritrean and Sudanese migrants trying to get to Europe through North Africa are viewed as "walking ATM machines" and the unlucky ones are imprisoned by their smugglers for weeks or months until their relatives pay large ransoms to secure their release. Those unable to pay are kept in captivity and forced to work off their debt. Severe violence including sexual violence is inflicted upon victims, some of whom are children.

Mexican drug trafficking cartels extort fees from migrants for safe passage across the border and sometimes also force them into carrying narcotics. Smugglers have been known to rob, kidnap, and sometimes kill migrants on both sides of the border. It has been reliably estimated that around 20,000 migrants transiting Mexico are kidnapped for ransom each year.

In all these cases, the gap between "migrant smuggling" and "trafficking" has proved to be a cruel legal fiction -- one that prevents victims of serious crime from receiving the protection and support they deserve and are entitled to.

All countries have a right to control their borders. But the fact that someone has sought to evade migration controls should not be enough to put them outside the protection of the law -- especially if they have been subject to criminal violence and exploitation.

International law demands that when responding to a crime such as the Italian tragedy, we don't just focus on prosecuting the criminals -- we also focus on identifying and supporting the victims. Their usual fate -- detention and hasty deportation without access to justice -- is unjust in the extreme. It also ensures that the best witnesses for an effective prosecution will never have their day in court. The exploiters win just about every time.

For too long, the world has lived with the lie that smuggled migrants are a world apart -- not entitled to our sympathy, our respect, or even the benefit of our laws. The perpetuation of this lie shames us all.