Bryan Caplan  

Human Smuggling: What If Philanthropists Were in Charge?

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As a consumer, I'm never scared to shop in legal but unregulated markets.  Never mind the right to sue; reputation and guarantees provide all the peace of mind I need.  Illegal, unregulated markets, however, are a different story.  Sure, they still have an incentive to protect their reputation.  But if an illegal firm's reputation gets too big, it draws unwanted attention from law enforcement.  Legal enforcement is grossly overrated, but legality is still vital.

The upshot: While I'm personally strongly in favor of human smuggling to evade unjust immigration laws, I'm ambivalent about human smugglers themselves.  What's the ratio of honest outlaws to ruthless predators?  This article gives lots of suggestive details, but few usable numbers:

People smugglers who offer to illegally transport people into Europe are advertising their services openly on Facebook, researchers have found.

Picture and video testimonials from successful migrants are posted on social media as smuggling operations compete to be seen as the safest way to enter Europe.

Researchers are using this information to analyse the networks behind people smuggling operations in the Mediterranean.

Syrian communities displaced by the civil war are especially close users of Facebook. The country had a functional education system before the war and Syrian migrants have on average a higher level of education and digital literacy.


The importance of networks and reputations in the free market of smugglers can been seen in the evidence that Dr Campana had collected.

One recording of a wiretapped telephone call revealed how one people smuggler asked another how many of the 366 asylum seekers who had died... were his.

The wiretap records one of the smugglers berating the other for his lapse safety.

The other smuggler later began to personally notify the families of the dead and pay out $5,000 (£3,778) in compensation to salvage his reputation.

But what's really going on? Well, the UN estimates a bit over a million crossers in 2015, with 3,771 recorded deaths.  Even if you think actual deaths are triple the recorded rate, that's roughly a 1% fatality rate.  Tragic, but given the level of smuggling and the risks required to avoid detection, it's surprisingly low.  I'd definitely take a 1% chance of death to escape Syria, and probably make the same deal to escape 90% of the countries in Africa.

In fact, suppose smugglers were pure philanthropists who only wanted to help people reach Europe alive.  There's a clear trade-off between the two goals - the safest routes will also be the most patrolled.  So you have to wonder: If philanthropists ran the human smuggling industry, how much lower could fatality rates even fall?

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Christophe Biocca writes:
If philanthropists ran the human smuggling industry, how much lower could fatality rates even fall?

We're not assuming here that the philantropists have personal financial resources they can bring to bear on the problem in addition to reinvesting whatever revenues they get from their customers, correct?

Otherwise they could likely decrease fatalities by using higher quality boats and never overloading them (which from my memory are 2 common failure modes of the failed smuggling attempts that make the news).

The tradeoff is not just safety vs patrol-avoidance, but also balancing cost-per-person against these (after all you're smuggling people with few assets). The philantropist can't operate at a loss forever either, but the usual philantropist may very well prefer smuggling 10,000 people with 0.1% losses than 100,000 people with 1% losses, even if the preference of the people being smuggled would be the latter.

Jonathan Monroe writes:

The whole point is the boats have to be unseaworthy in order that the migrants can legally be rescued, generally as soon as they leave Libyan territorial waters.

The vast majority of irregular migrants reaching Italy are landed by rescuers, not people-smugglers. (To the extent that this distinction remains meaningful). [Source, relevant comment is just above Fig8]

If the migrant death rate dropped to the point where migrant boats were not a proper subject for maritime search and rescue, then the boats would have to go all the way to Italy, and evade detection once they got there, which would make the smuggling business uneconomical.

The people doing the rescuing know all this. Organisations like Medicins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children which run search and rescue in the Med already are the philanthropic people-smugglers you are talking about. They just need the criminal people-smugglers to provide legal cover so that they don't get arrested by the Italian authorities for aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Michael Rulle writes:

If you are "strongly in favor of evading" what you consider unjust immigration laws I can only assume you are in favor of evading other laws you believe to be unjust.

Which, I think, leads to accepting people who are "strongly in favor of evading" other laws they feel are unjust. After all, who can be an arbiter of what is just or unjust if law evasion is a function of how strongly one disagrees with a given law?

This could lead to anarchy. Unless, one accepts the consequences of getting caught, which at least is internally consistent.

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