In defence of people smugglers

A group of German women and children arriving in the British sector of Berlin, October 1945 (left); Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 2015 (right) (photos: The King's Academy, Daily Amin)

The abuses and exploitation that refugees face at the hands of human traffickers fail to explain or justify the level of opprobrium in the Western media.

When I was a child I loved reading novels about escape. They were mostly stories of people escaping from areas under Nazi control, being smuggled across borders into neutral countries, or trying to get hold of the right papers, or at least ones convincing enough to allow them to escape from imprisonment, torture and death. Along the way they would meet some people who would help them and some who would betray them — the suspense and drama came from sharing the character’s uncertainty as to whether or not they’d make it, and whether or not the person they’d just met could really be trusted. The escapees, exhibiting bewildering levels of courage and ingenuity, were occasionally assisted by networks of resistance, anonymous people of staggering bravery who were prepared to face torture and give their lives to save others and to combat injustice.

This kind of fiction was everywhere when I was a kid, which was still within the broad cultural aftermath of the excitement and traumas of the war. You could still buy Victor annuals which revelled in imagery of armed conflict — I’m pretty sure the very first phrase I learnt in German was ‘Achtung! Ich bin hit!’. By the time I came into being there had already been a good couple of decades of this stuff. As an adult I read A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque, a more complex account of the brutalities of the struggle for escape and survival, and also Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which explores the deeper implications of what it is to be rescued and to start a new life elsewhere. They depicted deep, intense psychological and moral battles, in a way conditioned by a profound sense of empathy at suffering and loss. There was always a great deal of romance in these stories: divided couples and also people with divided emotions and divided loyalties who were forced by the threat of violence or by their conscience to do the wrong or the right thing. Intense human drama, in other words.

Brave and principled people who, despite not being perfect human beings, clearly did the right thing

The people who helped potential victims of Nazi persecution to escape were heroes and still are. Oskar Schindler himself is only one of them. In Portugal a few years ago there was a spate of articles about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux in France who defied the orders of Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship to issue visas and passports to a number of refugees. There is also the similar story of Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, Mexican Consul in Marseilles, who directed his employees to issue a visa to anybody wanting to flee to Mexico. Two weeks ago in the UK press there were a number of obituaries of Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

These were all extremely brave and principled people who, despite not being perfect human beings, clearly did the right thing, and they were not few in number—it is remarkable that in a few minutes’ googling I was actually quite hard-pressed to find any nation that doesn’t have a claim to their very own saviour-of-the-Jews (one might even argue, given the ending of the film, that Schindler in Spielberg’s film is the Israeli Schindler, a stand-in for the state of Israel itself as the only possible refuge for the Jewish people).

Another example is closer to home. When my mother was trying to open a kindergarten in the UK about 20 years ago, she was temporarily stymied in her efforts by a group of local residents who didn’t want to hear the sound of screaming kids on their street day in day out. My father looked at their petition and recognised a name from many years ago. He went to the house and introduced himself to the son of a man whose family my father’s father had, by means of his travel agency, helped to escape from Nazi Germany sixty years or so before. They soon dropped their opposition to the nursery.

What about the wars of today? Where are the 21st century Schindlers?

All of the Schindlers above are dead and buried. The war they fought seemingly has a happy ending: tyranny was defeated, and a handful of good people tried to do the best they could to help the helpless. It’s a comforting tale which allows us to get on with our lives without dwelling too much on our own standing in relation to the events we’ve seen. Schindler’s List flatters ordinary people by putting us partly in the position of helpless victims, partly in the role of the heroic saviour, helpfully allowing us to forget what we know full well: that ordinary people like us were actually the protagonists of the Nazi genocide. But that was seventy years ago. What about the wars of today? Where are the 21st century Schindlers?

It is worth playing devil’s advocate in relation to the massive refugee crisis engulfing the world, a world in which 1 in every 122 people is now exiled from their home by war, the changing climate, or extreme poverty.

There are two recent must-read articles which can help us begin to do this. One of them has a happy ending: it tells the story of Hashem Alsouki, who managed, over the course of three hellish years, to make his way from Syria to safety in Sweden, suffering enormous tribulations along the way, managing to keep at all times his identity papers and a Human Rights Watch report about the destruction of his hometown hanging from his neck in a waterproof pouch. In the other story we don’t meet the main protagonist, who met a less happy fate.

In both cases many people helped them along the way. Some of them were activists serving as a point of contact for people escaping from horror. Others were fellow refugees in an equally desperate plight. But some were traffickers, people who promised that they could take them the next stage of the journey in return for everything they possessed.

It’s probably fair to regard the majority of these traffickers as exploitative and abusive, but…

It’s probably fair to regard the majority of these traffickers as exploitative and abusive. It is a brutal and horrifying trade. A great deal of stories involving people smugglers resemble tales of kidnapping rather than transport. People fleeing are extremely vulnerable to fake promises and attempted rip-offs, and women, particularly those travelling on their own, are especially at risk. Cases abound of those piloting ships and boats in the Mediterranean simply abandoning their human cargo to the waves.

But given the near-impossibility of refugees reaching safe countries in which they may be able to exercise their fundamental human right to claim asylum through anything approaching conventional means, it cannot be denied that such people are also serving a fundamental human need.

Clearly not all involved in the trade are, in the words of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, among the ‘vilest form of people on the planet’. Confronting such hyperboles, the following truism bears endless repetition: if European society (and, for that matter, Australia) were truly concerned with the fate of refugees, they would allow them to reach their countries and claim asylum. Yet instead of this the EU demonises people smugglers to the point of seriously proposing bombing parts of North Africa in order to deter their trade, while Australia maintains concentration camps on Nauru island in order to prevent migrants setting foot on Australian soil.

We endlessly hear that human smugglers are evil people motivated only by the desire for wealth, an effective explanation as it relates to our increasing conviction that personal advancement is the only motivating factor in human affairs (indeed, we have actually come to believe that such aspiration is not only natural but also moral). The stories of people smugglers or the stories of those they have saved are hear much less often.

Of course there is enormous and widespread abuse. Of course there are, as in pretty much any industry, those at the top of the pile who get enormously rich on the basis of the brutal exploitation of basic human need, not to mention those at the bottom under very great pressure to avoid treating their passengers as anything other than human beings. But there are also staggering achievements mixed up in these cases of abuse, inspiring tales of bravery, suspense, drama and excitement.

Why is so little effort made in the media in particular to give a voice to those who have sacrificed everything at enormous risk in order to reach safety and try to protect and provide for their friends and families back home? Almost all refugees are ready-made heroes with astonishing stories to tell, tales of human endurance, ingenuity, bravery, desperation and abuse, but also of generosity and ultimately of survival and hope. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for hearing them, possibly because at some level our feelings are conditioned by a sense of guilt and helplessness.

Libya is a case in point. We Europeans first stabilised the country by supporting its dictator and then we destabilised it by bombing it to pieces without the slightest regard for the consequences. And let us be honest: the British did much the same to Iraq. We co-created the conditions for ISIS to thrive. The victims in this situation, people who were going about their lives, developing their societies, looking to the future, these people need help from someone, somewhere. We share responsibility for their fate, and we are not in a position to blithely condemn all those who are, whatever their motivations, trying to help them escape from the hell we have helped creating.

But increasingly we’re not inclined to help. We’re full, we tell each other. We have our own problems to deal with. And so we demonise those who help them. We’re happy to go along with the story that those people stuffing desperate people onto tiny leaking boats are doing so only out of self-interest, that the human desire to help others cannot possibly be a factor.

Perhaps the Schindler stories are a form of romanticising the past, even while we disown our present responsibilities.

Perhaps the stories of all these Schindlers were never more than a comforting fairy tale about how we would all (as British, Mexican, Portuguese people) do the right thing in such circumstances, that we, and our kind, are essentially good people at heart, a form of romanticising the past in order to show ourselves in the best light, even while we disown our present responsibilities. But out there right now there is an Afghan Schindler, a Moroccan Schindler or a Libyan Schindler. We don’t get to hear about the lives that they’ve saved. We’d rather not hear their stories or the stories of the people they’ve managed to rescue.

There are millions of our fellow human beings exactly like us crammed into refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the Jungle in Calais, in Melilla, Kos and Lampedusa. But they’re Muslims. They might be armed, or diseased. There are far too many of them. They don’t share our values of liberalism, tolerance and generosity. They want to scrounge off our society. This is the story that we seem to find more comforting and more compelling.

Of course, back in the 1930s and 40s there were a number of people who talked in this way about European Jews. They were a minority. This time round, in addition to the very worst that humanity has to offer, the countless digital equivalents of this emblematic product of European civilisation, there’s most of us, and there’s those who we increasingly choose to represent us: people indifferent to the fate of our/their fellow humans facing tyranny, torture, starvation and death, unwilling to take responsibility for their fate, and prepared to assume the worst of those who are risking their lives to help them escape. We should learn and share their stories if we are to have the slightest chance of rescuing our humanity.

Richard Willmsen

Richard Willmsen teaches English to politics students at a university in Rome and is the author of the blog Infinite Coincidence.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Legal note

1.    Terms and Conditions

2.    Privacy Policy

3.    Cookies Policy


1.    Terms and Conditions

Contact data for the web owner

This website has been created by KATOIKOS to promote their products and services.

– Name: Katoikos, S.L

– Co. tax Code:  B87123162

– Address:  Calle Campomanes 10, 28013  Madrid (SPAIN)

Registration details: Registered in the Commercial Register of Madrid.

Intellectual and Industrial Property

The various elements of this page, and website as a whole, are protected by Spanish legislation on intellectual and industrial property. The trademarks, trade names or logos appearing on this website are the property of the company, or, where appropriate, of third parties, and are protected by Trademarks Law, and of which KATOIKOS holds the legitimate license.

The information provided may not be used for commercial or public purposes, or modified. If the user downloads materials for personal and non-commercial use, warnings shall be kept about copyright and trademarks. To download and use the company logo that appears on the website, prior authorization is required.

Any unauthorised use of the images may violate copyright laws, trademark laws, the laws of privacy and publicity, and communications regulations and statutes.

Liability for Damage

KATOIKOS assumes no liability for damages you may suffer when browsing the web or in the use of computer applications that are part of it. Neither are warranties given as to the correction of malfunctions or updating of content.

Content you share with us

We may include features on this website that allow you to share your content with us and other users of the site. Please note that by sharing content it may become publicly accessible. You grant to Katoikos a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license, without compensation to you:

 (a) to use, reproduce, distribute, adapt (including without limitation edit, modify, translate, and reformat), derive, transmit, display and perform, publicly or otherwise, such content, in any media now known or hereafter developed, for Kaotikos’ business purposes, and

 (b) to sublicense the foregoing rights, through multiple tiers, to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law. The foregoing licenses shall survive any termination of your use of the site, as further described below.

For all of the content you share through the site, you represent and warrant that you have all rights necessary for you to grant these licenses, and that such content, and your provision or creation thereof through the site, complies with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations and does not infringe or otherwise violate the copyright, trademark, trade secret, privacy or other intellectual property or other rights of any third party, and is furthermore free from viruses and other malware.

Rules of Conduct

When using this website and/or sharing content with us, you are prohibited from posting or transmitting :

1. any unlawful, threatening, defamatory, racist, obscene, scandalous, deceptive, false, fraudulent, inflammatory or profane material or any material that could constitute or encourage conduct that would be considered a criminal offence, give rise to civil liability, or otherwise violate any law.
2. Any virus, worm, Trojan horse, Easter egg, time bomb, spyware or other computer code, file, or program that is harmful or invasive or may or is intended to damage or hijack the operation of, or to monitor the use of, any hardware, software or equipment;
3. Any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, “junk mail,” “spam,” “chain letter,” “pyramid scheme” or investment opportunity, or any other form of solicitation; and
4. Any material non-public information about a person or a company without the proper authorization to do so.

In addition, you will not:

1. Use this website for any fraudulent or unlawful purpose;
2. Interfere with or disrupt the operation of the website or the servers or networks used to make the website available; or violate any requirements, procedures, policies or regulations of such networks;
3. Access or use this website through any technology or means other than those expressly designated by us.
4. Restrict or inhibit any other person from using this website (including by hacking or defacing any portion of the website);
5. Except as expressly permitted by applicable law, modify, adapt, translate, reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble any portion of this website.
6. Remove any copyright, trademark or other proprietary rights notice from this website.
7. Frame or mirror any part of the webiste without our express prior written consent;
8. Create a database by systematically downloading and storing all or any content;
9. Use any robot, spider, site search/retrieval application or other manual or automatic device to retrieve, index, “scrape,” “data mine” or in any way reproduce or circumvent the navigational structure or presentation of this website, without our express prior written consent.


Kaotikos  reserves the right to remove any messages or statements or cancel any links.

This site may include hyperlinks to other web sites that are not owned or controlled by Katoikos. Katoikos has no control over, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, privacy policies, security or practices of any third party websites.

Content may be hosted on YouTube or other social media. Those operate their own set of terms and conditions and privacy policy which are separate to the ones presented on this website. Katoikos no control over and assumes no responsibility for, the content, privacy policies, security or practices on YouTube or other social media.

 The right to terminate your access

Katoikos reserves the right to terminate your access to this website at any time if you do not comply with these Terms and Conditions or you infringe Kaotikos’ rights in the content provided on this website.

Governing Law

These Terms and Conditions are governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of Spain, without regard to its choice of law provisions.  You agree to the exclusive jurisdiction by the courts of Spain.

Changes to the Terms

Katoikos reserves the right to make changes to the Terms and Conditions from time to time. You acknowledge and agree that your continued access to or use of this website will constitute your acceptance of such changes.

2.    Privacy Policy

Kaotikos takes the protection of your personal data very seriously and collects, processes and uses your data only in accordance with the standards of the legal data protection regulations.

Data is collected, processed and used with technologyes of the provider web trends for marketing and optimisation purposes and also for sending news and information you may be interested in by any electronic services, such as email or SMS.

Our website user’s database is registered at the Spanish Agency of Data Protection. You have the rights of access, rectification, deletion and opposition, regulated in articles 14 to 16 of the LOPD.

For this, please write to:

KATOIKOS (Data Protection) Calle Campomanes 10, 28013, Madrid (SPAIN)

Or send an email to Your ID will be requested for these issues.

3.    Cookies Policy

This site, like many others, uses small files called cookies to help us customise your experience. Find out more about cookies and how you can control them.

This page contains information on what ‘cookies’ are, the cookies used by the Kaotikos’ website and how to switch cookies off in your browser.

If it does not provide the information you were looking for, or you have any further questions about the use of cookies on the Katoikos’s website, please email

What are ‘cookies’?

‘Cookies’ are small text files that are stored by the browser (for example, Internet Explorer or Safari) on your computer or mobile phone. They allow websites to store things like user preferences. You can think of cookies as providing a ‘memory’ for the website, so that it can recognise you when you come back and respond appropriately.

How does the Katoikos’s website use cookies?

A visit to a page on the Kaotikos’s website may generate the following type of cookies: Anonymous analytics cookies.

This website uses Google Analytics, a web analytics service provided by Google, Inc., a Delaware company whose main office is at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View (California), CA 94043, USA (“Google”).

Google Analytics uses “cookies”, which are text files placed on your computer, to help the website analyze how users use the site. The information generated by the cookie about your use of the website (including your IP address) will be transmitted to and stored by Google on servers in the United States. Google will use this information on our behalf in order to track your use of the website, compiling reports on website activity and providing other services relating to website activity and internet usage. Google may also transfer this information to third parties where required to do so by law, or where such third parties process the information on Google’s behalf. Google will not associate your IP address with any other data held by Google.

Anonymous analytics cookies

Cookier Name Origin Aim End
__utma Google Analysis 2 years since set –up or update
__utmb Google Analysis 30 minutes since set –up or update
__utmc Google Analysis When browser sesión ends
_utmt Google Analysis 10 minutes since set –up or update
__utmz Google Analysis 6 months since set –up or update

How do I turn cookies off?

It is usually possible to stop your browser accepting cookies, or to stop it accepting cookies from a particular website. All modern browsers allow you to change your cookie settings. You can usually find these settings in the ‘options’ or ‘preferences’ menu of your browser. To understand these settings, the following links may be helpful, or you can use the ‘Help’ option in your browser for more details.

Cookie settings in Internet Explorer
Cookie settings in Firefox
Cookie settings in Chrome
Cookie settings in Safari web and iOS.


© 2020 Katoikos, all rights are reserved. Developed by eMutation | New Media

Become a
Being up to date with Europe only takes a few seconds.
Your information will never shared with a third party.
Get our periodical newsletter sent to your inbox!
I have read and agreed the Privacy Policy (required)
Become a
Being up to date with Europe only takes a few seconds.
Get our periodical newsletter sent to your inbox!
Your information will never shared with a third party.
I have read and agreed the Privacy Policy (required)