Migrant Smuggling: Preying on the Most Vulnerable

The publication of the first-ever Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants on June 13 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) could not have been timelier.

Almost 200 deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea have been recorded so far this month. Moreover, 630 migrants and refugees were rescued from four separate migrant ships sinking off the coast of Libya, and were forced to wait another eight days before finally being accepted by Spain. On top of that, Trump’s executive order in response to outrage at the detention of children separated from their parents after crossing into the US from Mexico effectively excludes the thousands of families already affected and essentially allows for these families to be locked up together indefinitely. Taking all this together, the plight of migrants — many of whom have been smuggled across land, sea and air borders, and are fleeing war and persecution — is once again a hot topic.

The UNODC global study focuses on statistics for 2016, the last year for which full data was available, but also refers to 2017 data and events where relevant. According to the report, migrant smuggling was worth up to $7 billion in 2016, with at least 2.5 million migrants smuggled. While the report concedes that, “This is a minimum figure as it represents only the known portion of this crime,” these figures are certainly far lower than the reality, as a 2010 UNODC report on organized crime gave similar figures for the trade generated and the number of people crossing the US-Mexico border alone.

With the latest UN Refugee Agency figures for worldwide displacements at 44,400 people fleeing their homes each day “as a result of persecution, conflict or generalized violence,” refugees are identified as being particularly vulnerable. A lack of documents such as passports, birth certificates and ID cards or the means to obtain them from hostile authorities can make legal migration almost impossible for many asylum seekers.

The report also raises concern about the increasing number of unaccompanied and separated children found along smuggling routes, and the impact this has on their rights and well-being.

The Latin America to North America route via the US-Mexico border and the Africa to Europe route via the Mediterranean and Aegean seas are well-known. However, the study identifies 30 major smuggling routes worldwide and the profiles of both the smugglers and smuggled.

Importantly, the study explodes myths surrounding migrant smuggling. For example, in general, “smuggling networks seem not to be involved in other forms of major transnational organized crime.” The report notes that migrant smuggling over the Mexico-US border “is [not] under the control of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.” Likewise, in Italy, there are no “structured connections” between Mafia-like gangs and transnational smuggling networks.

In this respect, the situation in Libya is considered “unique,” where militias and armed groups allegedly involved in migrant smuggling are also involved in slavery, physical and sexual abuse of migrants and forced labor. Nonetheless, “Many smuggling networks engage in systematic corruption at most levels; from petty corruption at individual border control points to grand corruption at higher levels of government. Corrupt practices linked to migrant smuggling have been reported along nearly all the identified routes.”

Migrant smuggling is often conflated with human trafficking. Defined in the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime as the crime of “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,” it is an offense against the sovereignty of states over their borders and not the individual person. Typically, individuals consent to being smuggled across borders or through territories. This can lead to victims of trafficking not being identified as such, and thus not being provided with appropriate assistance and protection measures. The Protocol clearly states that the criminalization of the smuggling of migrants is not aimed at criminalizing migrants themselves.

The vulnerable, irregular status of smuggled migrants, however, makes them susceptible to different forms of abuse and exploitation, including human trafficking: “Some of the frequently reported types [of abuse] faced by smuggled migrants include violence, rape, theft, kidnapping, extortion and trafficking in persons.” Arrival in the destination country does not necessarily diminish this risk, as many end up in detention and/or exploitative forms of labor.

Smuggling is far more costly and time-consuming than regular means of making the same journey; individuals, to whom the legal means are often barred, typically pay thousands of dollars along the most popular land and sea routes. In addition, thousands of migrants die during smuggling activities each year; extreme weather and terrain as well as deliberate and systematic killings of migrants have been reported, “making this a very violent illicit trade. The reported deaths — most of them along sea smuggling routes — represent only the tip of the iceberg.” Indeed, many deaths go unreported. In some cases, mass graves are later found.

Although the report offers no recommendations, comments are provided on its policy implications. With most states already party to international laws protecting the rights of refugees, migrants and children (among others), the onus falls on states to act proactively to tackle the issue. Some solutions are logical, such as tackling institutional corruption and “broadening the possibilities for regular migration and increasing the accessibility of regular travel documents and procedures. Making regular migration opportunities more accessible in origin countries and refugee camps, including the expansion of migration and asylum bureaux in origin areas, would reduce opportunities for smugglers.”

The mainstream media broadly ignored the report as it fails to fit the official narrative of the “threat” posed by certain types of migrants. While it deems merely increasing border enforcement efforts to be ineffective, the day before the report was released, the European Commission announced plans to triple funding on border and migration management to €5 billion per year and to create a force of 10,000 border guards. In the US, Donald Trump has his “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Border control itself is being increasingly securitized and militarized, with the involvement of NATO in Europe, among others.

Such policies are no deterrent and are not even intended to provide one. The traumatic separation of families and the thousands of lives lost in sea and land crossings have not and will not stop thousands from following in their footsteps until the causes that drive people from their homes and countries of origin are addressed.

The smuggling of migrants is not new. Deemed a form of transnational organized crime by the UNODC, appearing politically tough against immigration in general has emerged as a safe response to state impotence elsewhere and on other forms of crime, especially by transnational corporations.

The clandestine nature of this migration means that much of the abuse and exploitation take place out of sight and out of mind. Although conceding that “many information gaps remain,” these statistics need to be analyzed to ensure the rights of vulnerable people are put above those of states and borders.

Further analysis and monitoring of the causes of and the policies that contribute to irregular migration and smuggling should be included. Ultimately, it is the human cost and misery of smuggling that need to be addressed.