Small-scale smuggling

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Small-scale smuggling
Informal practice commonly found in Worldwide
World map.png
Map of Worldwide, where Small-scale smuggling commonly takes place.
Entry written by Bettina Bruns.
Bettina Bruns is affiliated to Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography.

Original Text: Bettina Bruns, Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig, Germany

Small-scale smuggling is a fairly universal practice associated with bending the rules on the passage of goods through the borders between countries. In the majority of cases it is an illegal economic practice aimed at income generation, made possible by permeable, or porous, borders; price differential between countries; or unequal supply of goods. Ordinarily, small-scale smugglers exploit the loopholes in regulations; ineffective enforcement of these regulations; or risk carrying more goods than allowed across a border without declaring them. They either sell these goods at a small profit or keep them for their own use. In short: they use the border as a resource. The practice is a case of the enabling power of constraints.

‘Cigarette smuggling with a book. This exhibit was on display in the main customs office in Munich. Author: High Contrast ’

Etymologically, ‘smuggling’ stems from the Germanic word smeug or smugan which means ‘to lurk secretly and spitefully’[1], and from the Danish smug which means ‘secretly’, ‘hidden’ [2]. It originated in the 1660s at the North Sea region from the Low German smuggeln or Dutch smokkelen, which originally meant something like ‘to sneak’ or perhaps literally ‘to slip’ (smuggled goods through), as well as ‘to creep’ and ‘to move in a ducked way’ [3][4]. It is also connected with the German word schmiegen which means ‘to nuzzle’: ‘Smuggling comes from nestling. One nestles up against the circumstances’[5]. Thus, originally smuggling was associated with ‘hiding’, with getting around customs rules and reacting to external conditions. This significance holds also true in completely differently rooted languages: the Swahili chora chora which refers to smuggling also means ‘to flee’, ‘to by-pass’ and ‘to hide’[6]. In contrast to this rather cultural linguistic development, the Russian translation of smuggling is simply provozit’ kontrabandoi (провозить контрабандой, literally ‘to transport contraband’) which focuses on the illegality of the practice: the term originates from the Latin contra bannum: against the ban.

A skirmish with smugglers from Finland at the Russian border, 1853

Small-scale smuggling is rather a technical term used in print and science[7][8][9], but usually not by the smugglers themselves. People carrying out this informal practice are rather reluctant to define their activities so clearly, as this might be potentially harmful for their business[10]. They prefer to use a multiplicity of euphemisms for their trading activity, depending on where, what and how they perform it. One example is the use of the word mrówki (English: ants) in Poland which focuses on the smugglers’ arduous frequency (up to several times a day) of crossing the border to import a small amount of goods each time. Mrówki might even transport goods in a legal way across the border, provided that the quantity of their merchandise does not exceed the allowed norm. Russian traders who regularly cross the border to Finland to make a profit on selling goods and providing tourist services such as transportation, advice on visas and other information, refer to themselves as perevozchiki (English: carriers)[11], avoiding completely any potential illegality and/or informality in the description of their activities.

Formally, small-scale smuggling differs from small-scale trade in respect of legality: ‘Traditionally, ‘trade’ is the legal and ‘smuggling’ is the illegal means of moving items from one side of the border to the other’[12]. However, in practice legality and illegality in small-scale smuggling cannot be separated quite so neatly. On the one hand, parts of the activity may be perfectly legal: purchasing the goods, paying for the transportation across the border and for the visa to enter another country. On the other hand, illegal elements of the smuggling activity involve bending the rules such as non-declaration of all the goods, bribing customs officials, or subsequently selling the goods at a local market without a licence. Circumventing official rules while observing formal procedures is expressed in a motto circulating among smugglers: ‘Do not violate the law, but know the ways to avoid it’[13]. It is also an indication of the ambivalent nature of the practice: neither wholly legal nor illegal.

‘An informal market in front of a railway station close to the Polish-Belarusian border on the Polish side. Photograph by Bettina Bruns.’

The practice of small-scale smuggling also has a normative ambivalence, inasmuch as its illegal elements are not always perceived as illegitimate or morally reprehensible. In countries with high excise duties on alcohol and cigarettes, small-scale smuggling of such goods is often seen as justified in the face of ‘unfair’ taxes, especially if the goods are only intended for personal use. In cases of high unemployment and poverty levels, small-scale smuggling is frequently regarded as a survival strategy, viewed as entrepreneurial by individuals and as legitimate by the wider population. Even the local authorities, including police, can be the conniving parties out of necessity. The legitimacy of smuggling, however partial, is the reverse side of the state’s failure to improve economic conditions and to provide employment for its population. The lack of opportunities for legitimate income creates a justification for alternative income. Although the government is not likely to admit the acceptance of small scale smuggling, it often enjoys greater tolerance than smuggling on a larger scale or by organised crime. Thus, at least two levels of smuggling have to be differentiated: ‘Commercial smuggling involves the transportation of large quantities to be sold for profit… [while] petty smuggling applies to individual people crossing a border to purchase goods at a cheaper price’[14]. The first one is associated with profits, the second one – with survival.

In 1904, American federal authorities arrested several men who were smuggling whiskey into Indian Territory by concealing it within the hollowed-out axles of a farm wagon. This cartoon depicts people draining whiskey from the axles into pans; an onlooker comments that "HO-HO - WAGON BROKE DOWN!"Date: 5 April 1904

In the socialist period, small-scale smuggling was a popular means for the population in many countries to cope with ongoing supply shortages. Schleichhandel across the GDR-Polish border was a reaction to the all-encompassing economy of shortage under socialism[15]. The practice of šverc, petty smuggling carried out on trains from Vojvodina in Serbia to Hungary and Romania, was rooted in the economic crisis of the 1980s[16]. In the post-socialist period, small-scale smuggling has compensated for economic insecurity and for some is a survival strategy. Findings from the Polish-Russian border indicate that small-scale smuggling plays very diverse roles in individual households[17]. The economic function of smuggling is defined by the degree of the financial dependence on the activity: when smuggling is the only source of income, the household is totally reliant on it. Therefore, smuggling is carried out on a regular basis and in a professional fashion, in the sense that the gains are used for further investment in smuggling equipment and the structure of daily life is organised around smuggling activity. In other households, smuggling is combined with other sources of income, such as formal employment or social benefits (these are normally very low and insufficient to live on). In such cases, smuggling is also regular and constitutes an essential addition to the household’s income, but it is the formal employment schedule that determines possible time slots for smuggling. It can be difficult to fit smuggling into the weekly routine, because the waiting times at border crossing points are often unpredictable. The most rare and adventurous scenario involves profit-oriented smuggling. In this case the household has a good standard of living guaranteed from other sources, for example, in the form of pensions or parental contributions, but the income from smuggling funds additional consumption, such as lifestyle consumer goods and/or leisure activities.

Economic necessity aside, small-scale smuggling contains one further very important function for individuals carrying it out: it replaces not only the economic, but also social aspects of formal employment. ‘I go out normally every day, just as I would go to work’ is how one smuggler put it. Small-scale smuggling structures daily life, providing social contact as well as filling the day with activity.

Although smuggling has a short-term positive impact on the economic situation for individuals and the regional economy, these precarious activities cannot be relied upon for sustainable development in the long term, whether micro or meso-level. People involved in small-scale smuggling do not enjoy any social security and insurance benefits, thereby creating the danger of massive poverty among the elderly. This in turn will be very expensive for local authorities to deal with.

Small-scale smuggling is widespread in all Central European post-socialist countries, but also prevalent in other parts of the world, such as at the Afghan-Iranian, Mexican-Belize and Rwandan-Congolese borders. Smuggling of gold bullion from Peru to Bolivia is a widespread practice, with smugglers using special clothing such as ‘long, purpose-built vertical pockets in a bulbous down-filled coat’ designed exclusively for smuggling gold bullion[18]. Examples in Europe range from cigarette smuggling across the Polish-Ukrainian border to smuggling household commodities from Russia to Finland and trafficking of walnuts from Azerbaijan into Georgia.

Due to its ambivalent nature and functional relevance for survival, small-scale smuggling is a sensitive research topic[19]. In order to collect data, a relationship of trust between researcher and smuggler should be established. This needs time, long-term ethnographic fieldwork and a mixture of methods such as participant observation and in-depth interviews.


  1. Kluge, F. (1960): Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Berlin.
  2. Schomburg, W. (1992): Lexikon der deutschen Steuer- und Zollgeschichte. Von den Anfängen bis 1806. München.
  4. Pfeifer, Wolfgang (1993): Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen. Akademie-Verlag. Online:, latest retrieval: 11.12.2013
  5. Finckh, L. (1943): Schmuggler, Schelme, Schabernack. München.
  6. Doevenspeck, M. et al. (2012): Navigating uncertainty: observations from the Kongo-Rwanda border. In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS:85-106.
  7. Archer, R.; Rácz, K. (2012): Šverc and the šinobus: Small-scale smuggling in Vojvodina. In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS:59-83.
  8. Wagner, M.; Łukowski, W. (eds.) (2010): Alltag im Grenzland. Schmuggel als ökonomische Strategie im Osten Europas. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
  9. Wallace, C.; Shmulyar, O.; Bedzir, V. (1999): “Investing in Social Capital: The Case of Small-Scale, Cross-Border Traders in Post-Communist Central Europe”. In: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 23, 4: 751-770.
  10. Stammler-Gossmann, A. (2012): „‘Winter-tyres-for-a-flower-bed‘: Shuttel trade on the Finnish-Russian border.“ In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS: 233-255.
  11. Stammler-Gossmann, A. (2012): „‘Winter-tyres-for-a-flower-bed‘: Shuttel trade on the Finnish-Russian border.“ In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS: 233-255.
  12. Thuen, T. (1999): „The significance of borders in the East European transition.“ In: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 23, 4: 738-750.
  13. Stammler-Gossmann, A. (2012): „‘Winter-tyres-for-a-flower-bed‘: Shuttel trade on the Finnish-Russian border.“ In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS: 233-255.
  14. Deflem, M.; Henry-Turner, K. (2001): „Smuggling”. In: Bryant, Clifton D. (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviant Behavior. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge: S. 473-475.
  15. Logemann, D. (2012): Das polnische Fenster. München: Oldenbourg.
  16. Archer, R.; Rácz, K. (2012): Šverc and the šinobus: Small-scale smuggling in Vojvodina. In: Bruns, B.; Miggelbrink, J. (eds.): Subverting Borders. Doing Research on Smuggling and Small-scale Trade. Wiesbaden: VS:59-83.
  17. Bruns, B. (2010): Grenze als Ressource – die soziale Organisation von Schmuggel am Rande der Europäischen Union. Wiesbaden: VS.
  18. Finnegan, W. (2015): „Tears of the sun. The gold rush at the top of the world.“ In: The New Yorker, April 20, 2015., accessed 7 July, 2015.
  19. Lee, R.M.(1993):Doing research on sensitive topics. London: Sage.