We don’t know much about migrant smuggling networks. This is despite the fact that, according to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (ODC), at least 2.5 million people were smuggled in 2016, generating a revenue of at least $5.5 billion.

It can be difficult to find information on smuggling networks because neither the provider of services – the smuggler – nor the recipient – the migrant – has an incentive to provide data. Both parties voluntarily enter into an agreement – and both parties, at least theoretically, get satisfaction from the agreement.

Because of the difficulty in finding data about smuggling networks, we also have a very limited idea of how the business has evolved and changed in recent years. We know that regular migration has increased due to a variety of factors including improvements in transportation, improvements in mobile communication and social media – but it is much more difficult to trace the history of irregular migration.

Meraki Labs conducted interviews with ten smugglers who operated on the route from Afghanistan to Iran. The interviewees came from a range of backgrounds – they included various ethnic groups, their ages ranged from 25 to 55 and they provided a variety of services (money transfer, hotel organisation, flight organisation, etc.).

We found that improvements in mobile technology affected informal migration networks just as much as – if not more than – formal migration networks. Smugglers systematically stated that mobile phones made it easier and faster to organise accommodation, logistics and money transfers. It also helped to advertise to and then talk to customers. What did smugglers use before mobile phones? Either satellite phones (expensive and difficult to use) or human messengers (expensive and time consuming).

Despite the fact that mobile technology (specifically, smartphones and social media) improved the logistics of smuggling, it did not improve trust. Smugglers from different networks are not more likely to trust each other due to mobile communications – in fact, one smuggler pointed out that in business, you cannot trust even your brother. Mobile communication does not increase smuggler trust in authorities, or in the migrants they serve.

The effects of mobile technology are also often overstated by the media. In the aftermath of the 2015 migration flows to Europe, the press indicated that smartphones and social media drove the flood of migration to Europe, and a variety of policymakers started looking to social media to provide improved and alternate information to migrants. The stories from the press, however, were overstated. Migrants use social media to get information about the journey – but on social media, they connect primarily to family, friends and smugglers. In short, social media does for migrants what it does for the rest of the world – it creates an echo chamber.

Finally, smugglers realise that using social media increases their susceptibility to capture by the authorities. Evidence on their mobile phones is incriminating – but is often under-utilised.

So what does all this mean for policymakers?

  • To address questions around human smuggling, policymakers need to look beyond technology, to relationships. This includes looking at social and cultural factors as well as trust dynamics in smuggling networks
  • Authorities can use technology to enforce laws – but they aren’t currently doing so. Policymakers can support police and other agencies to use technology better to enforce existing laws