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Migration intermediaries

Les intermédiaires de la migration

Journal of international migration

Revue européenne des migrations internationales

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Published on Friday, June 24, 2022


Political and media rhetoric in Europe or North America reduces the category of migration intermediaries to that of “smugglers or traffickers, described as greedy and unscrupulous”. This vague and reductive figure helps to legitimize repressive and humanitarian policies towards migrants, who then mobilize different resources, networks and strategies in order to move around, often taking ever greater risks. To be satisfied with this reading, which makes the migration issue a crisis to be solved, inevitably obscures the diversity of actors involved in “migratory globalization”. The complexity of their role, interests and actions is evaded, even though it cuts across many institutions, including the States themselves. Indeed, the latter contribute, through the policies they deploy and the treaties they sign, sometimes to the detriment of international law, for purposes of control and repression, but also for the management and supervision of the workforce, to the emergence of a myriad of actors who are indispensable to both movement and settlement.



Political and media rhetoric in Europe and North America tends to reduce the category of intermediaries in migratory movements to that of “smugglers or traffickers, inevitably described as greedy and unscrupulous” (Dubet, 2018). This figure, described as evil, remains relatively vague and reductive. On the other hand, it participates in legitimizing — behind their counterparts that are the humanitarian discourse and action (Brunet-Jailly, 2007) — repressive and restrictive policies towards migrants, who mobilize different resources, networks and strategies in order to move despite this context, often taking more and more risks. This reading, which makes the migration issue a humanitarian and security issue, and in fact a crisis to be solved (Leconte et al., 2019), in particular through the erection of new camps, new barriers and the use of new control technologies, inevitably obscures the diversity of actors involved in the “migratory globalization” (Simon, 2008). The complexity of their roles, interests and actions is evaded, even though it runs through many institutions, including the States themselves. Indeed, the State contributes, through its policies deployed and treaties signed, sometimes to the detriment of international law, for purposes of control and repression, but also for the management and supervision of the workforce, to the emergence of a myriad of actors essential to both the movement and the settlement.

In this context, the use of intermediaries in migration, while far from new, has become increasingly important over the past thirty years (Jones et al., 2017; Xiang and Lindquist, 2014). Particularly in Asia, an increasing number of people need to engage the services of paid intermediaries if they wish to migrate (Lindquist and Xiang, 2019; Spaan, 1994). The reasons for this are several-fold. First, it is linked to the tightening of migration policies which, through processes of filtering, control and even closure, make it increasingly difficult to cross borders (Ayalew et al., 2018; Spener, 2004), contributing to a “partitioning of the world” (Rosière, 2020). It is then concomitant with the growing privatization of migration management (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sorensen, 2013), itself inserted in a more global neo-liberal context that generates a “migration industry” (Hernández-León, 2012). These dynamics ultimately produce a structural demand for intermediaries: on the one hand, states that subcontract the organization and repression of movement, and on the other hand, people wishing to migrate who are connected to other intermediaries in order to facilitate border crossings (Faist, 2014).

While the issue of intermediaries is now crucial to a better understanding of contemporary international migration, the literature on the subject is largely Anglophone and Francophone studies remain both scarce and sparse. As such, REMI has proposed a first reflection on the subject through the article written by Linquist and Xiang (2019), but as of yet no francophone journal has specifically addressed this issue. The objective of this thematic issue will therefore be to bring together texts focused on the figure of intermediaries in order to grasp both the theoretical anchors and the empirical advances.

Intermediaries in the Literature on International Migration: Between Means of Emigration and Social Intermediation for Integration

The figure of intermediaries emerged in the 1970s through the pioneering work of Massey et al. (1988) on migration networks. This research is located at the “meso” level and highlights the solidarity links that exist, particularly within families, which allow access not only to migration, but also to assistance during the entire process of settling migrants in host countries (Audebert, 2004). These studies particularly highlight the altruistic aspect of the motivations of the various intermediaries who act in largely informal settings, thereby neglecting the role and weight of financial issues in these mutual aid contexts (Goss and Lindquist, 1995).

In response to these criticisms, the concept of the “Migration Industry” emerged from the 1990s to refer to “the commercialization of human mobility” (Hernández-León, 2012). It thus envisions migration as an economy incorporating institutions, agents, entrepreneurs, and individuals who offer services that facilitate migration in return for monetary gain (Bilger et al., 2006). In particular, this research, which is mostly empirical, has documented the identity of actors who can be described as intermediaries, showing that they can fall into both the formal and informal spheres (Salt and Stein, 1997) and that they do not always facilitate migration, but can, for some of them, on the contrary prevent or even block it (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sorensen, 2013).

However, this work is still hampered by the large number of actors who can be identified as intermediaries and the many terminologies associated with them in different contexts (Jones and Sha, 2020). The “smugglers”, “brokers”, “consultants”, “recruiters”, “coyotes” in Latin America or “coxers” in West Africa reflect the heterogeneous names used to describe these actors and the diversity of their functions. Some authors propose to focus on the work of intermediaries and the observation of their concrete role in the migration process (Spener, 2009). These studies have shown that intermediaries have an influence on the action of migrating or not. But they have also reminded us that intermediation generally has two distinct dimensions: intermediation as a vehicle and means of emigration and social intermediation for integration.

Intermediaries in the first case tend to act upstream of the migration process and influence migrants’ destinations, as well as recruitment in certain economic sectors. For the second case, they play an important role in the settlement and integration of migrants in transit and destination countries — whether they are associations, host families, activists or family or community networks. Several works have already documented this role in the integration of migrants in various contexts, whether in the Western Countries (Pette, 2014; Harney, 1979) or in the Global South (Barraud, 2011; Pian, 2008). Finally, we will add to this list all those private actors recruited for the smooth running of this “Migration Industry” in its administrative aspect — for example, the services with which it is now compulsory to file a visa application — and in its police or even military aspect — such as the companies benefiting from contracts for the construction of barriers and for the development of technologies for identity control.

The aim of this thematic issue is to examine the figure of intermediaries by emphasizing several aspects related to current social, economic and political changes, without, however, excluding contributions likely to highlight the historical depth of the processes at work. It will thus aim to gather contributions dealing with various national and regional contexts in order to bring out both the specificities and the more structural aspects likely to emerge from a global reading which shows how much, on a global scale, the migration issue is caught between repressive and liberal logics.

The Relationship of Intermediaries to the State

The state occupies a central place in the processes to which intermediaries relate. It is a relatively ambiguous actor that both legitimizes and criminalizes the economy — or business — of migration (Kim, 2018). It also facilitates, through its policies, the entry of certain categories of migrants at the expense of others (Spaan and Naerssen, 2018). In this, it is part of a neo-liberal logic in which the State safeguards and promotes market mechanisms (Pinson, 2020: 15). Through its actions, the State is now breaking down migration routes. The emergence of a whole range of public and private institutions (visa processing centers, dematerialized public services, etc.) has created a bureaucratic ecosystem in which intermediaries develop and navigate, becoming key players in the migration process, sometimes even contributing to the production of migration law and its redefinition (Miaz et al., 2021: 9). The contributions will thus be able to question the place of the State through the work of intermediaries and the relations that the latter maintain with the State.

Networks and their Actors

The notion of network is very much mobilized, although we often do not really understand its nature, functioning, logic or importance as a resource for people in migration. In contrast to the “mafia” network or the term “filière” (Casella Colombeau, 2017) generally invoked to maintain a repressive register and to disqualify the capacity of people to elaborate strategies to move, the contributions here will be able to focus on the ways in which networks, be they diasporic, familial, village, friendly, associative and political in nature, are organized and mobilized within the framework of movement as well as of settlement (Béteille, 1974). In this way, the network can be qualified as a system of intermediaries whose analyses will seek to decipher its functioning.

Migration and the Management of Skilled and Unskilled Labor: A Myriad of Public and Private Intermediaries

Intermediation in labor recruitment is an ancient, global, and persistent phenomenon (Bosma et al., 2013). Just as workers are recruited in Europe via “fixed-term contracts, temporary work assignments, wage portage, secondment [...] by a foreign company, seasonal contracts” (Morice and Potot, 2010) or Asian workers and servants exported to the Middle East under the Kafala system (Dahdah, 2020; Bruslé, 2015), migratory globalization is part of a new international division of labor involving the recruitment, training, and management of men and women destined to circulate to work at lower costs, to send currency back to their countries of origin before being in turn sent back as part of a turn-over avoiding the settlement of “undesirables” (Agier, 2008; Bruslé, 2015). The more qualified workforce is not excluded from these logics either, as evidenced by so-called “chosen” migration programs wishing to attract foreign workers in key sectors capable of stimulating economic growth (Pellerin, 2011) or the attraction of foreign students today synonymous with attractiveness and additional revenues for universities (Garneau and Mazzella, 2013). As such, the recruitment of international students constitutes both a rapidly developing field of research and an “emerging industry of migration” fueled by the work of intermediaries to recruit candidates from often private universities (Baas, 2019; Mary, 2020; Robinson-Pant and Magyar, 2018; Huang et al., 2016). These forms of circulation are framed by cooperation between public authorities in sending and receiving countries, and private actors such as recruitment agencies, universities, camp management companies and employers. Administrations and public authorities as well as private actors thus integrate this panorama of migration intermediaries. Contributions will thus be able to question the often-complex links between private and public institutions in the work of intermediaries.

Outsourcing, Repression and Border Controls: A Spatial Approach to Intermediarity

The externalization of borders and the Schengen agreements guaranteeing freedom of movement in part of Europe have tended to obscure the role of European police authorities in the repression of migratory movements into and within Europe. Yet, like the repression in Calais or the seemingly pacified management in Lampedusa (Guenebeaud and Lendaro, 2020), the reintroduction of border controls between countries in the Schengen zone in 2015, but also the discourse on the deployment of Frontex agents in Europe and its neighborhood (Ottavy and Clochard, 2014), police and customs officers, but also the military in the context of operations in the Mediterranean, police and military forces have been brought back to the forefront as intermediaries of repressive policy towards international migration. They rely on the technologies developed by the arms industry for the construction of borders, their surveillance and the control of arrested migrants. The border industry for the repression of migration then relies on the collaboration of intermediaries such as public authorities and private interests (Rodier 2012). Moreover, like the agreements between the United States and Mexico and the European Union and Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, border outsourcing, which consists in control and repression practices, produces a new category of State that could be called an “Intermediary State”, negotiating within the framework of geopolitical power relations (Greenhill, 2010), the administrative, police and humanitarian management of migrants on its territory, but also threatening to let them pass if it does not obtain satisfaction. This aspect recalls one of the registers of intermediarity that is part of a resolutely spatial approach (Merle, 2011: 89).

Submission guidelines

Proposals for articles should be written in French or English, and should include the author’s affiliation, a title and an abstract (1,000 characters spaces included). They can come from different disciplines of the social sciences, and should be sent to assaf.dahdah@cnrs.fr, kevin.mary@univ-perp.fr and olivier.clochard@univ-poitiers.fr

before September 1st, 2022.

Articles can be in French, English or Spanish.

Texts need to conform to house style (https://journals.openedition.org/remi/5848)




  • Start of call: June 15, 2022
  • Deadline to send abstracts: September 1st, 2022
  • Decision: September 30, 2022
  • Deadline to send articles in their first version: December 1st, 2022
  • Deadline to send articles in their final version: May 1st, 2023
  • Publication: September 2023

Scientific coordination

  • Dahdah Assaf (geographer, Research fellow at CNRS, UMR ART-Dev, Montpellier)
  • Mary Kevin (geographer, Lecturer at Perpignan University, Via Domitia and UMR CNRS ART-Dev and member of the Institut Convergences Migrations)
  • Clochard Olivier (geographer, Research fellow, UMR Migrinter (CNRS/Poitiers University) and member of the Institut Convergences Migrations, member of the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales)


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Robinson-Pant Anna and Maygar Anna (2018) The recruitment Agent in Internationalized Higher Education: Commercial Broker and Cultural Mediator, Journal of Studies in International Education, 22 (3), pp. 225-241.

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Spener David (2009) Some critical reflections on the migration industry concept, Paper presented at the Migration in the Pacific Rim Workshop, University of California, Los Angeles, CA. May 29.

Spener David (2004) Mexican migrant-smuggling: A cross-border cottage industry, Journal of International Migration and Integration, 5 (3), pp. 295-320.

Xiang Biao and Lindquist Johan (2014) Migration Infrastructure, International Migration Review, 48 (1), pp. 122-148.


  • Poitiers, France (86)


  • Thursday, September 01, 2022


  • intermédiaires, État, réseaux, main-d’œuvre, migrations qualifiées, acteurs publics, acteurs privés, répression, intermediaries, state, networks, labour force, skilled migration, public actors, private actors, repression


  • Assaf Dahdah
    courriel : assaf [dot] dahdah [at] cnrs [dot] fr
  • Kevin Mary
    courriel : kevin [dot] mary [at] univ-perp [dot] fr
  • Olivier Clochard
    courriel : olivier [dot] clochard [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr

Information source

  • Audrey Montépini
    courriel : remi [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Migration intermediaries », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, June 24, 2022, https://doi.org/10.58079/196e

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