At least 2.5 million migrants were smuggled in 2016, according to the first Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Migrant smuggling generated an income for smugglers of up to US$7 billion, equivalent to what the United States or the European Union countries spent on global humanitarian aid in 2016.
Most vulnerable at risk
According to a UNODC media release, the study describes 30 major smuggling routes worldwide and finds that demand for smuggling services is particularly high among refugees who, for lack of other means, may need to use smugglers to reach a safe destination fleeing their origin countries.
Data suggests that many smuggling flows include unaccompanied or separated children, who might be particularly vulnerable to deception and abuse by smugglers and others. In 2016, nearly 34,000 unaccompanied and separated children arrived in Europe.
“This transnational crime preys on the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs. “It’s a global crime that requires global action, including improved regional and international cooperation and national criminal justice responses.”
According to the International Organization for Migration, there are thousands of deaths due to migrant smuggling activities each year. Many smuggled migrants die from drowning, whereas others perish due to accidents or extreme terrain and weather conditions. The Mediterranean is the deadliest route, with around 50 percent of the total number of deaths.
Systematic killings of migrants have also been reported along most smuggling routes. But smuggled migrants are also vulnerable to a range of other forms of crime such as violence, rape, theft, kidnapping, extortion and trafficking in persons.
A complex relationship
Smuggling may involve complex schemes, such as organising fake marriages or fictitious employment, counterfeiting travel documents or corrupting senior officials. For this, many smuggling networks engage in systematic corruption at most levels.
The study also explores the links between smugglers and migrants, and finds that as a general pattern, smaller-scale smugglers are either ethnically linked to the territories where they operate, or they share ethnic or linguistic ties with the migrants they smuggle. Some of the migrants who were successfully smuggled become smugglers themselves.
Smugglers advertise their business where migrants can be easily reached, the study says. This includes neighbourhoods that are home to diaspora communities, refugee camps or various social networks online. To make a decision, migrants then rely on the opinion of their communities, relatives and friends, and more recently, social media.
Making regular migration opportunities more accessible in origin countries and refugee camps, including the expansion of migration and asylum bureaux in origin areas, would reduce opportunities for smugglers.
Tackling smuggling networks in their entirety requires improved regional and international cooperation and national criminal justice responses.
Raising awareness in communities of origin, and particularly in refugee camps, about the dangers involved in smuggling may also help reduce the demand for smuggling services.
Data collection, analysis and research on smuggling of migrants remain at their infancy. To build a solid international body of knowledge to support policy making in the area of smuggling of migrant, there is a need to improve data collection systems at the national, regional and international levels.