Smuggling of migrants
Migrant smuggling refers to the movement of persons across international borders for financial benefit. Data on migrant smuggling allow policymakers to better understand the phenomena as well as to develop policies that promote safe and orderly migration.
Data on smuggling are scarce, and there is no annual global report on migrant smuggling trends. Official statistics on migrant smuggling are limited as many countries do not collect or publish such data. The little data that do exist on smuggling are retrieved from arrivals numbers, such as those across the Mediterranean, or are based on the number of migrants apprehended at a border (Laczko and McAuliffe, 2016). A useful indicator on migrant smuggling and the concern States have over the practice is the number of countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its supplementary protocol, the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. However, the extent to which these countries have implemented their obligations remains difficult to determine.
Source: IOM, visualization MINDS/ČTK, 2017
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According to the UN Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, migrant smuggling is defined as “the procurement, in order to obtain, 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” (UNODC, 2000).
Although the terms are often confused, the smuggling of migrants is not the same as human trafficking. An element of exploitation is required in trafficking but not in smuggling. Smuggling must be consensual and it must be transnational, as human trafficking may also occur within a country’s territory. In practice, it may be hard to establish the boundary between smuggling and trafficking, as elements of exploitation and abuse may emerge during transit or at destination, even in the presence of initial consensus on the part of the migrant. Smuggling and trafficking may occur on the same routes and smuggling can lead to trafficking, making it difficult to discern one from the other. It is also important to note that human trafficking generally is a crime against an individual, whereas smuggling is a crime against the state (ICAT, 2016).
Due to its clandestine nature, there is no reliable global statistic on the number of migrants who are smuggled each year. According to UNDP estimates, there were about 50 million irregular international migrants in the world a decade ago (2009), but this figure most likely includes many migrants who entered a country legally and overstayed, so it is not a good indicator of migrant smuggling. This estimate is believed to have since increased (UNODC, 2011). Recent surveys of policy concerns show that governments are increasingly focusing on irregular migration, including migrant smuggling (UN, 2014).
Data for specific migration corridors provides an indication of the scale of migrant smuggling. In terms of regional trends, there are an estimated 3 million irregular entries into the United States each year, most of which involve smuggling (UNODC, 2016). As for movements from North Africa to Europe, over 181,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy in 2016, the majority of whom are believed to have used smuggling services (IOM, 2017).
Migrant smuggling is a business that could be worth as much as USD 10 billion or more per year, given that routes from West, East and North Africa to Europe, and South America to North America generate approximately USD 6.75 billion a year (Laczko, F. in Ferrier and Kaminsky, 2017). However, estimating the global revenue generated from smuggling is itself problematic (UNODC, 2011). Measurements of the profit margin of migrant smuggling must be assessed carefully, as there are many factors that contribute to such a number, such as the distance and complexity of the route, the degree of institutional control of the route and the reception of migrants in transit and destination countries (ibid.; see also Global Spotlight: Migrant Smuggling Project).
The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNOCD)’s launched the Knowledge Management Portal on Migrant Smuggling in May 2017 with the aim to disseminate information related to the implementation of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The Portal provides three databases on Migrant Smuggling: a case law database, a database of legislation, and a bibliographic database. These can be searched using criteria such as crime type and/or country/region, providing user-friendly access to sources on migrant smuggling.
IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP) is another data source that provides insight into migrant smuggling, as it collects data on migrant deaths and disappearances worldwide, many of which are linked to smuggling.
IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) also collects data on different types of migration flows, and has been active in over 60 countries since 2004. Based on the country, DTM provides up to four types of data collection systems: mobility tracking, flow monitoring, registration and surveys. Through these systems, DTM is able to collect data at different stages of the migration trajectory - departure, in transit, and upon arrival. In some cases, DTM’s data collection systems are able to capture movements involving individuals who have used smuggling within irregular migration flows. Such data are subject to a migrant’s willingness to share such vulnerable information.
The Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) provides monthly narrative summaries as well as quarterly and annual reports of the mixed migration movements and data in six regions (West Africa, North Africa, East Africa and Yemen, Middle East, Asia and Europe). Both the narrative summaries as well as quarterly and annual reports provide information regarding the number of migrants smuggled, the cost of smuggling and other related information, if available.
Lastly, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) produces the Annual Yearbook on Illegal Migration, Human Smuggling and Trafficking in Central and Eastern Europe, which includes a survey and analysis of border management and border apprehension data from 22 countries.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Data on migrant smuggling are very limited due to the clandestine nature of smuggling. As smuggling occurs under the radar, it is often not identified or misidentified and consequently not recorded by official sources. Assessing the scale of the problem is therefore a major challenge. While there are measurements of irregular migration around the world, no data exist to determine the extent of migrant smuggling globally (IOM, 2016b).
As irregular migration flows are also generally difficult to measure, due to the lack of knowledge about the dynamics of irregular migration in certain regions, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint the number of migrants smuggled.
While clear quantitative data regarding smuggling may not exist, a number of qualitative data does. Such data provide insights into case studies and migrant profiles, which can inform policy even though quantification may be difficult. An example of such a repertoire of studies can be found in UNODC’s publication on Migrant Smuggling in Asia: Current Trends and Related Challenges, which provides a number of small-scale qualitative studies on smuggling. Such examples of qualitative data reveal the economic and social processes involved in smuggling. However, due to the sensitivity and maintaining the confidentiality of informants, such data are produced in the form of published work rather than raw data (McAuliffe and Laczko, 2016).
More could be learned about migrant smuggling if countries were encouraged to collect and share data on migrant smuggling in a standardized way (ibid.). In addition, new partnerships across research disciplines as well as between policy makers and researchers can be created in order to improve understanding of the various effects smuggling policy may have on smuggling practice. McAuliffe and Laczko (2016) also recommend increasing research in and by countries of origin and transit as well as to expand research on emerging topics.
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