How Micro-corruptions Can Make Many a Journey Miserable

By Kim Wilson

As part of the Journeys Project, I, with teams of Fletcher students, have explored the financial journey of refugees. We had wanted to know how migrants and refugees muster funds to begin journeying and manage their financial portfolios along the way. We uncovered a battery of micro-corruptions — acts of deception, extortion, and grift that arose from a morass of tricksters called the “mafia”, a refugee term for a blend of state and non-state actors. The mafia’s tiny deeds of theft and duplicity added up, weaving a hairshirt of painful encounters that refugees donned and doffed, unwillingly, as they progressed along their routes.   

We learned a lot from our 450 refugee respondents. Roughly 90% had carefully prepared for their departure, especially by getting their finances in order. To muster enough funds to travel, they sold jewelry, livestock and appliances. They tapped savings held in banks, in boxes or stored with friends for safekeeping. They borrowed from and received gifts from family. A critical part of preparation for some (especially South Asian migrants) was organizing financial middlemen. Variously called agents, hawaldars, and money brokers, these middlemen worked closely with smugglers to ensure payment that would guarantee the safety of the migrant. Elaborate schemes involving informal financial institutions and even banks exposed clandestine actors in furtive alliance.

Together, these actors create a sphere of transcontinental financial flows. Kingpins in Nepal might work with a hawaldar (informal money agent) in Dubai to secure hotel arrangements in Costa Rica, with a credit card no less. A money agent in Kabul might operate hand-in-glove with a kingpin in Russia to release funds when a smuggled refugee reached certain waypoints, operationalizing an array of financial tools.

From “Visual Journeys of Refugees Around the World” by Anne Moses

Reflecting on all that we learned, we documented multiple “micro-corruptions:” to us, petty acts of shady dealings, that may or may not have involved the state, but added up to making a journey miserable. These micro-corruptions did not only plague a journey but also cropped up at destinations. Following are a few lessons we learned.

It’s Hard to Know Who the State Is

It may be clear to the state who the state is but it’s often not clear to someone traveling from one jurisdiction to the next who the state is. In the Darién Gap, the no man’s land that joins Panama to Colombia, a welter of con artists, thugs, narco-traffickers, local smugglers, paramilitary, border patrol and police peopled the jungle. Refugees often took weeks to make it through the forest, with mile high mountains and raging rivers directly in their path.

From “Fears in the Darien Gap” by Anne Moses

Even after successfully dodging fire ants, howler monkeys, snakes and jaguars, few could dodge “the mafia.” These operators functioned in cahoots, but their individual allegiances were hard to parse. Migrants had trouble differentiating official representatives of the state — immigration officers, border patrol and police — from bandits and thugs. Migrants claimed this tangle of knaves worked collectively. Their aim? To strip travelers of their possessions, with cell phones and cash being the most popular items to pilfer.

According to our research subjects, ostensible “authorities” would feed information to the jungle mafia and vice versa. Migrants had to assume, albeit without proof, that the collection of shifty actors, including the police, shared in the bounties extracted — usually at gun point — from migrants.

Refugees and migrants budget for bribes and opportunistic corruption

Bribing didn’t work in the Darién Gap. The dynamics and weapons in play allowed extortionists to seize whatever they wanted. But bribing did work in other instances. For example, a major cash assistance program funded by the EU and NGOs in Greece put as much as $610 a month in the hands of refugees. In one camp about an hour’s drive from Athens, Syrian refugees reported that the “camp elders”, seemingly part of the PKK, collected 10% of the cash assistance as protection money. Refugees themselves, the elders nonetheless fundraised for causes back home. The non-PKK refugees simply budgeted for this reduction in spendable cash. Here, the state (Greece) likely had no idea what was going on. But to the refugees, the PKK was the state – and the state was corrupt.

A Sudanese man, about thirty-years-old, told his harrowing tale of traveling from the border of Colombia and Ecuador to Cali, a city in southern Colombia.

“Ten minutes after the bus was underway, the police stormed the bus. I was held in a cell with three Indian men for five days.”

The driver, he explained, had tipped off the police that there were migrants on the bus. Once out of detention (and paying handsomely for his release), his journey through Colombia continued.

“Shortly after getting on the bus [to Cali], the police raided it and were looking for migrants. I hid with my luggage in the lavatory and pretended no one was inside when they knocked on the door. In total, the police raided the bus four times over 15 hours as I made my way to Cali. Each time, I would hide with my luggage in the lavatory.”

He was arrested, released, and then back on a bus that got stopped four times, but he did not get caught. He had used the lavatory to hide himself.

Interestingly, he insisted that no one on the bus tipped off the police. When we asked how the police could have known that migrants were on the bus, he shrugged: “There are always migrants on the bus.” And his prominent physical traits, he said, made him a target. There was no way, we learned, that migrants could have had the proper transit papers (salvoconductos). Those were only available hundreds of miles north in Turbo, a port town on the Caribbean. In Cali, our Sudanese subject realized that to proceed to Turbo he needed a remittance from relatives. But Western Union would not accept any of his papers as proof of identity. Locals were quick to receive the funds in their own name for a price – 10% of the transaction. This was a common – and highly illicit – story, with either Western Union agents or locals offering up their own documents to cash in on the transaction.

Corruption gets creative

Bribes were paid both directly (to the person seeking a bribe) and indirectly (to a third party). A Cameroonian man explained how a surrogate agent worked:

“In Cali, Colombia, I visited a migration office where I stood in line to receive a transit visa. When I got to the front of the line, they told me I was ineligible and sent me outside. A few minutes later, I was approached by a child on a bicycle who had a picture of me standing in line inside the migration office. I gave the child some cash who returned minutes later with a transit document.”

Some forms of extortion were egregious. In one of the Panamanian camps that received refugees exiting the Darien Gap, three Indian migrants said that they were held a week by the camp authorities. They would only be released once they had spent $3,000 in local shops. They complained that Indians were always being targeted by authorities as wealthy dupes whereas Nepalis were seen as poorer, more virtuous travelers.

While micro-corruptions made for unpleasant travel, the schemes of grand corruption would only surface later – not from travelers but from key informants. In a future post we will discuss how smuggling rings engage officials to do their bidding.


About the Author

Kim Wilson is a Lecturer in Human Security and International Business at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, where she teaches courses in Financial Inclusion, Market Approaches to Development, and Transnational Human Security. She is also a practitioner in several development sectors including financial inclusion and micro-franchising. She publishes in journals on the topic of financial resilience and more recently on the financial journey of refugees. Materials on journeys can be found on the Journeys Project site. She is co-editor of the book, Financial Promise for the Poor, How Groups Build Microsavings (Kumarian Press) and founder of the Fletcher Leadership Program for Financial Inclusion. Please subscribe to the Journey Project’s communique called Fresh FINDings.

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