People smuggling – the issues

People smuggling syndicates are run like businesses, with extensive and complex networks.

Migrant smuggling

For centuries, people have left their homes in search of better lives. In the last decade, the process of globalization has caused an unprecedented amount of migration from the least developed countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe to Western Europe, Australia and North America.

With this, we have seen an increase in the activities of organized criminal networks who facilitate irregular migration. By providing fake identification documents, organizing transport, and bypassing official border controls, criminals are making huge profits.

Smuggling is carried out by land, air or sea. It all depends how much one is willing to pay - and risk.

“Smuggling of migrants” shall mean 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 a permanent resident. United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Smuggling of Migrants Protocol, Article 3 (2004)

Organized criminal networks

People smuggling syndicates are run like businesses, drawn by the high profit margins and low risks. They benefit from weak legislation and a relatively low risk of detection, prosecution and arrest compared to other activities of transnational organized crime.

Smuggling networks can be extensive and complex, and can include people who carry out a number of different roles:

  • recruiters, middlemen;
  • boat captains, guides, drivers;
  • people who provide illegal travel documents;
  • those who provide accommodation along the way.

A report published jointly by Europol and INTERPOL in May 2016 estimates that more than 90% of the migrants coming to the European Union are facilitated, mostly by members of a criminal network.

People smugglers border crossing
Willing migrants often rely on people smugglers to cross borders.

Faced with tougher immigration policies in destination countries and improved technology for officials to monitor border crossings, willing irregular migrants rely increasingly on the services of organized people smugglers.

Smuggling routes have become increasingly interconnected and complex in response to legislative and law enforcement activities. They may be simple and direct, but more often than not, they are circuitous. For example, migrants from both Africa and Asia may be found along the same smuggling route up to North America.

The time between a migrant departing from home and arriving in their destination country may vary from days to several months, or even years.

The relationship between criminals and migrants is very much a temporary one, making the criminals difficult to trace. They are generally unknown to the people they are smuggling, hide behind pseudonyms in encrypted chats and use rental vehicles and different mobile numbers, for example.

Use of technology

While some migrants and smugglers make contact face-to-face at well-known meeting points, most of the smuggling process is carried out online. Criminal groups use the Internet or dark web to recruit, gather real-time information on routes, communicate and advertise their services.

For migrants, planning an illegal journey can seem like booking a holiday. Platforms are professionally run and follow a specific business model. Reality, unfortunately, can be very different from what was advertised. Hazardous routes, overcrowded boats, abandonment, and forced criminality are just some of the dangers faced by migrants once they set off.

Technology also acts as a lifeline for migrants. Whether it is the GPS which assists them in their journey, or a means to keep in touch with family back home, a mobile device and internet connection are essential.

People smuggling vs. human trafficking

Clearly, both human trafficking and people smuggling are complex crimes, and it is important to recognize that there is potential for overlap.

In general, the individuals who pay a smuggler in order to gain illegal entry to a country do so voluntarily, and the relationship ends on arrival. People who have been trafficked, on the other hand, are exploited on arrival and there are often elements of fraud, force or other coercion present.

However, there is evidence that people smugglers continue to exploit irregular migrants along their journey, through threats and demands for additional fees.

In some cases, smugglers force migrants to work for years in the illegal labour market to pay off the debts incurred as a result of their transportation.