The United National Office Drugs and Crimes (UNODC, 2018) estimates that, at a minimum, 2.5 million people were smuggled across international borders in 2016, generating a revenue of between 5.5 and 7 billion USD. As the number of migrants reaches record highs globally, there are increasing economic, social and cultural reasons for people to migrate by either formal or informal means. Increasing demand for movement generates more business for migrant smuggling networks.
Migrant smuggling is defined as “the procurement, in order to obtain, either directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident.” (Protocol on Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, 2000) Smuggling is a complex phenomenon with criminal, economic, social and historical components. Smugglers offer a variety of services, ranging from pre-departure provision of information and support to services along the route, including: accommodation, transport, provision of counterfeit documents and escorting, and support after arrival, including accommodation.
Smuggling routes encompass land, sea and air options. They are volatile and shift on a regular basis, often on account of changes in border security measures. The fluidity of smuggling routes is demonstrated by the effects of border wall construction – data indicates that although border walls reduce crossings at their targeted points, they are often accompanied by increases in crossings at other points. Routes are not only geographically malleable, but they are temporally flexible as well. Migrants can choose to remain at one point on a route for a relatively long period of time, either to make more money to proceed onward or for other reasons. Although routes are flexible, cities where logistical and transport arrangements for smuggling are made – known as ‘hubs’ – remain constant.
Smuggling networks take a variety of different forms, from structured hierarchies to extremely informal networks. Migrant smugglers are not systematically linked to other organised criminal networks such as arms and drugs, although there are links along some routes. Smugglers often have strong ethnic and linguistic links with the communities with which they work. Many migrant smugglers are either migrants themselves, were formerly migrants, or are low level smugglers – that is, they undertake smuggling as a part time occupation to improve household income. As such, informal smuggling networks may be weakened if low-level smugglers were offered alternative economic opportunities.
Migrants are subject to a range of protection violations at all stages of the smuggling process – these include death, physical assault and violation, extortion and transfer into human trafficking networks. According to some studies, 76% of migrants have been subject to violations – most of which have been perpetrated by smugglers or local law enforcement officials. Migrants rely on narrow sources of information before departure, and are therefore not likely to be fully informed about the nature of the risks they are likely to encounter on the road or after arrival. The current policy approach toward migration focuses on criminalisation of smuggling and enforcement measures are taken to apprehend and prosecute smugglers. This policy approach is reflected in the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and is reinforced in the Bali Process and the Global Compact on Migration. It also echoes the EU and US policies of ‘externalising’ border management, including by construction of walls. This is similar to the approach taken to legally address human trafficking – but due to distinct differences between smuggling and trafficking, the current approach to addressing smuggling has some key gaps, the most significant of which is that smuggling involves the voluntary participation of the migrant. In addition to the voluntary agreement between the smuggler and the migrant, this practice is typically supported by local social mores and economic needs. The identification and prosecution of criminals in a context where most actors are complicit is challenging.
Adoption of a more market oriented approach to smuggling, aiming to reduce demand and to target supply hubs rather than routes, may be a more effective method of addressing human smuggling. This paper proposes five recommendations for policymakers and practitioners to address this gap.