People smuggling implies the procurement, for financial or material gain, of the illegal entry into a state of which that person is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident.
A broad distinction can be made between people smuggling and human trafficking. In general, the individuals who pay a smuggler in order to gain illegal entry to a country do so voluntarily whereas the victims of human trafficking are often duped or forced into entering another country.
In principle, the relationship between smuggler and migrant ends once the individual arrives in the new country. However, there is evidence that people smugglers continue to exploit illegal migrants, 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.
An escalating problem
Human migration is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, people have left their homes in search of better lives elsewhere. 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.
In recent years, the Mediterranean region has seen a massive escalation of the problem, and an increase in the activities of organized criminal networks who facilitate irregular migration.
Currently, conflict and economic instability appear to be the main reasons for the illegal movement of migrants throughout the world, and many migrants are refugees or asylum seekers.
Organized criminal networks
The flow of migrants across borders is sometimes controlled by criminal networks. Due to more restrictive immigration policies in destination countries and improved technology to monitor border crossings, willing illegal migrants rely increasingly on the help of organized people smugglers.
People smuggling is not a homogenous criminal activity; the price of the trip, conditions of travel and status upon arrival can vary significantly. Smuggling is carried out by land, air or sea.
Very often the travelling conditions are inhumane: the migrants are overcrowded in trucks or boats and fatal accidents occur frequently. According to the International Organization for Migration, around 3,700 migrants are estimated to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea between January and October 2016.
People smuggling syndicates are drawn by the huge profits that can be made, while benefiting from weak legislation and the relatively low risk of detection, prosecution and arrest compared to other activities of transnational organized crime.
People smuggling networks often change their routes and methods in response to legislative and law enforcement activities. This means that the routes used by people smugglers may sometimes be simple and direct, at other times circuitous. The time between departure and arrival may vary from some days to several months or even years.
The criminals are difficult to trace as they are generally unknown to the people they are smuggling, use rental vehicles and change their phones and phone numbers regularly.