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At a time when it is nearly impossible for refugees to reach the European Union through safe and legal channels, and human smugglers are providing one of the only means for refugees to flee persecution, should human smugglers be brought to justice, or are they bringing about justice? This research is an inquiry into the range of morally permissible actions that might be considered 'humanitarian smuggling' - those acts of the facilitation of irregular entry that are morally blameless, if not praiseworthy or even obligatory, and should not be criminalised. Turning first to legal doctrine, I argue that smuggling prohibitions at both the international and European levels are vague and overbroad, failing to enable subjects of the law to orientate their behaviour accordingly and risking the suppression of humanitarian acts. Second, drawing upon practical ethics as well as historical and contemporary examples, I begin to map the complex moral terrain of the range of ethically defensible acts of smuggling that risk criminalisation under current smuggling prohibitions. Finally, I analyse several recommendations to shrink the distance between what is legal and what is moral, arguing that at a minimum, smuggling prohibitions must be more narrowly drafted to decriminalise 'humanitarian smugglers'. I ultimately propose that the true wrongs the human smugglers worthy of criminalisation commit may indeed be more aptly punished under other offences in criminal law.



Working paper


Refugee Studies Centre

Publication Date



RSC Working Paper Series, 119

Total pages