Impact of the COVID crisis on migrant smuggling

© UN Photo/UNHCR/Phil Behan

Vienna (Austria), 10 September 2020 — Criminal networks who smuggle migrants for profit continue to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic; as their methods become riskier and the demand for their services looks set to rise.

Due to border closures, migrants —including pregnant women and children— are being abandoned by their smugglers in transit countries.   

Restrictions at country entry points and increased patrols are leading smugglers to revert to more dangerous routes in harsher conditions, where migrants are exposed to violence, abuse and the risk of contracting coronavirus.  

These alarming trends were reported this week in Vienna and virtually during a meeting of around 450 international crime prevention and criminal justice experts.

The event was part of the annual Working Group on the Smuggling of Migrants which focuses on current issues related to this crime and challenges in the implementation of the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants — adopted 20 years ago.

Participants discussed ways to improve cooperation to detect, investigate and prosecute cases of migrant smuggling, while protecting the vulnerable people who turn to smugglers in times of declining social and economic conditions in their home countries.  

“Experience has shown that in times of crisis, organized criminal groups react quickly, adapt and thrive,” says Martin Fowke, a crime prevention and criminal justice officer from UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section and Secretary to the Working Group.  

“International cooperation plays a crucial role in countering the smuggling of migrants, especially when institutions and resources are under great strain such as in crises like the COVID-19 pandemic,” he adds. 

Research on migrant smuggling along several migration routes indicates that COVID-19-related travel restrictions have not stopped this criminal activity and that the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to lead to an increase in the smuggling of migrants.

“The medium and long-term effects of such an unprecedented global health, economic and mobility crisis, which has caused job losses and an increased strain on social security and health systems, will lead to an increased interest in migration,” says UNODC’s Martin Fowke.

“If possible, this will be regular migration, and, if necessary, smuggler-facilitated irregular migration,” he adds.

At the end of the two-day meeting, the participants discussed a series of recommendations for tackling the crime of migrant smuggling during the pandemic and caring for the migrants.

These include providing protection measures for smuggled migrants throughout the COVID crisis, such as access to health care, regardless of status, and the support of the wider use of technology within the criminal justice system to facilitate access to judicial processes.

Commenting on the outcome of the two-day Working Group, the Chairperson, Italian prosecutor Francesco Testa, said:

"It was a success on two counts. Firstly, the fact that we managed to hold this meeting in a hybrid format, with participants in person and joining virtually. This was a challenge, but we made it. We actually had the greatest participation we have ever seen in this kind of meeting.”

“Secondly, it was a success because all the recommendations were approved by the Working Group. This means, in future, they could be implemented by the countries that have ratified the UN’s Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants."  

Migrant smuggling is a highly profitable business. There is an increasing demand for smuggling services; and a low risk of detection and punishment for the criminals behind this crime.

Smugglers seize the opportunity created by people's need to escape poverty, lack of employment, natural disaster, conflict or persecution in the absence of legal migration paths.