Mediated migration: A literature review of migration intermediaries

Migration is mediated by a range of intermediaries, now more than ever (Xiang and Lindquist, 2014:124). While there is nothing new about them, scholars generally agree that their numbers, reach and influence have increased in the past three decades (Jones et al., 2017). Migrants are also now even more dependent on third parties to migrate. Consequently, the ‘middle space’ of migration intermediaries is now essential to understanding contemporary patterns and experiences of international migration (Cranston et al., 2018; Deshingkar, 2019; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sorensen, 2013; Lindquist et al., 2012).

Intermediaries are powerful agents in facilitating migration (Harvey et al., 2018; McCollum and Findlay, 2018; McDowell et al., 2008; Žabko et al., 2018). On a practical level, intermediaries conduct a wide variety of different activities aimed at facilitating migration, including helping broker visas, arranging birth certificates and passports, booking transportation, guiding, finding jobs and/or accommodation, connecting migrants to healthcare and medical tests and providing training (Agunias, 2009; Ayalew, 2018; Broek et al., 2016; Salt and Stein, 1997; Spaan, 1994). They offer financing and forged documents (Eelens and Speckmann, 1990; Jones and Pardthaisong, 1999; Salt and Stein, 1997) and services related to remittance (Agunias, 2009; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sorensen, 2013). They help aspiring migrants navigate complex immigration bureaucracies for which the outcomes are often uncertain (Castles and Miller, 2003; Findlay and Li, 1998). Intermediaries also organise the selection of migrants for jobs and training for those migrating for employment (Findlay and McCollum, 2013; Xiang and Lindquist, 2018).

However, their activities are far from neutral: what intermediaries do and the way in which they do it matters. What they do to facilitate migration and how they do it has wider societal impacts beyond simply functional activities to do with the migration process. Migration is a social, political and economic phenomenon. Who migrates, why they migrate, to where and under what conditions, matters. Intermediaries are mediators and issues of power and inequality are therefore fundamental to any analysis of intermediaries. This makes them an important methodological vantage point from which to study international migration (Lindquist et al., 2012).

This working paper is intended to contribute to the development of the UKRI GCRF South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub (MIDEQ) research on migration intermediaries. MIDEQ studies the complex and multi-dimensional relationships between migration and inequalities in the context of 12 countries in the Global South. Utilising an interdisciplinary mixed methods approach, MIDEQ builds an evidence-based understanding of the relationships between migration, inequality and development. It aims to translate this knowledge into concrete policies and practices which improve the lives of migrants, their families and the communities in which they live. As a starting point for building empirical and theoretical understandings of migration intermediaries, this paper draws on an extensive review of the literature to address how they have been conceptualised by others. A dizzying array of terminology is used to describe migration intermediaries, including brokers, dalals, taikongs, recruiters, placement agencies, migration industry, people smugglers, human traffickers, facilitators, coyotes and immigration consultancies.

So, who and what are they? This review first addresses how intermediaries have been conceptualised in the literature(s) according to who they are and what they do. Thus far, studies of their activities have tended to splinter between those that approach them as “smugglers” which facilitate irregular migration, including for refugees (e.g.Triandafyllidou and Maroukis, 2012) and those which explore their role as facilitators of labour migration (e.g Deshingkar, 2019; Lindquist et al., 2012). Yet, in many cases their functions are similar. We also review the arguments as to why intermediaries have come to feature so strongly in contemporary international migration patterns. We conclude by sketching the future agenda for research on intermediaries within MIDEQ.

Mediated migration: A literature review of migration intermediaries

PDF 700.3 KB

So, who and what are migrant intermediaries? This review first addresses how they have been conceptualised in the literature(s) according to who they are and what they do. We also review the arguments as to why intermediaries have come to feature so strongly in contemporary international migration patterns. We conclude by sketching the future agenda for research on intermediaries within MIDEQ.