UNODC report presents data on smuggling of migrants from Latin America and Africa

Sub-Saharan migrants leaving Agadez (Niger) in order to reach the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Photo: SID and CeSPI.14 July 2010 - According to "The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment" , there are an estimated 50 million irregular migrants in the world today.

As a result of global inequalities and restrictive immigration policies, many workers from developing regions are willing to borrow heavily from their communities and risk their lives to access opportunities in more affluent countries. Since they cannot always do so legally, they often look for organized criminal groups to help them. Because such "services" are illegal, those who provide them have tremendous power over their charges, and abuses are commonplace.

The Assessment examines two northward smuggling flows: from Latin America to North America and from Africa to Europe. While there are other major illegal migration flows in the world, including flows of undocumented migrants from East Africa to Yemen and routes through Central Asia to the Russian Federation and beyond, the flows to the United States of America and Europe are probably the most lucrative for smugglers.

From Latin America to the United States

The largest number of apprehended migrants anywhere in the world are found along the southern border of the United States. About 3 million Latin Americans are smuggled illegally across that border every year. Since 90 per cent of them are assisted by smugglers, the total income for the smugglers is likely to be around 6.6 billion dollars per year. Some 88 per cent of the 792,000 illegal migrants apprehended in 2008 were Mexican nationals; almost all the rest were other Latin Americans.

Although illegal migrants have been detected travelling by rail, on foot and even through tunnels specially built for that purpose, most are smuggled in trucks. They may be collected in "stash houses", either before crossing or once inside the United States. Smugglers group the migrants in those houses in order to receive the rest of the smuggling fee. This is normally paid by migrants' relatives in the country of origin or destination.

While delaying payment until the crossing is complete provides some security that migrants will not simply be dumped in the desert, it also transforms the migrants into hostages, the collateral on which the transaction is secured. In 2004, 36 of 275 people arrested for smuggling of migrants in the United States (25 per cent) were also charged with hostage-taking and 15 per cent of the smuggled migrants concerned had been held against their will in attempts by their smugglers to extort additional payments.

Africa to Europe

The dynamics of African migration to Europe are similar to those driving Latin American migration to the United States, except that the push and pull factors are even stronger. Some 55,000 migrants were smuggled from Africa into Europe in 2008, for a sum of about $150 million, by small groups of smugglers positioned along the route. Europe hosts the largest African-born population outside Africa, and remittances account for a significant share of GDP in many African countries.

Most of the routes used to smuggle migrants from Africa involve long passages over land and short maritime hops to European islands. Both parts of such voyages are hazardous and migrants are subject to exploitation throughout their journey. The routes taken have changed dramatically in response to the action of law enforcement agents. For example, the Canary Islands grew rapidly in importance as a transit area until 2006, when law enforcement agencies pushed the flow towards Lampedusa; however, that new route was shut down when Italy and the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya signed a cooperation agreement in May 2009.

International response to the smuggling of migrants

The smuggling of migrants is largely an opportunistic crime. This is most evident in Africa, where smuggling routes have shifted so much over time that it is difficult for any smuggling organization to last long. This means that efforts to disrupt smuggling groups are unlikely to have much effect other than perhaps diverting the flow once again. The hopes and dreams of the migrants themselves are driving the illegal market for smuggling. The smugglers are merely a parasitic infection, but one that is difficult to avoid.

UNODC is the only United Nations entity focusing on the criminal justice element of smuggling of migrants, those efforts being underpinned by the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols on trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.

The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 55/25, entered into force on 28 January 2004. The Protocol aims to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants and to promote cooperation among States parties while protecting the rights of smuggled migrants and preventing the worst forms of exploitation. It is intended not to stop illegal immigration but rather to prevent organized criminal groups from exploiting the vulnerability of illegal migrants for profit.

UNODC has also recently issued Smuggling of Migrants: A Global Review and Annotated Bibliography of Recent Publications, which surveys existing sources and research papers on migrant smuggling and provides a summary of knowledge and identified gaps based on the most recent and relevant research available on migrant smuggling from a worldwide perspective.

In October, Vienna will host the fifth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The Conference was established to improve the capacity of States Parties to combat transnational organized crime and to promote and review the implementation of the Convention. The fifth session will discuss progress made by Member States in ratifying the Convention and its protocols, including the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol, which so far has over 100 signatories. ( View information on past sessions)

Related information

The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment (pdf)

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