Smuggling of migrants: a complex human and legal issue to be taught at university with new UNODC modules

30 April 2018 - In recent years, mainstream media has experienced a surge of coverage on large migration and refugee flows, ranging from reports on the risks migrants and refugees face throughout their journeys to reach safety, to the actual abuse and exploitation that some of them experience in transit and destination countries. The issue tends to provoke vivid discussions in political circles, social networks and other media platforms, but while awareness has arisen and opinions abound on the subject, there is little solid understanding of the different crimes experienced by migrants and refugees throughout their journeys.

In the context of the Education for Justice (E4J) initiative, a component of the Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration, UNODC is promoting a better understanding of these issues, working with academics to analyse and clarify key concepts relating to Smuggling of Migrants (SOM) and Trafficking in Persons (TIP). To this end, UNODC is developing modules for use at the tertiary level, aimed at university professors to incorporate into their curriculum in a wide range of study fields. The seven modules on SOM (half of a total of 14 modules, with the other seven focusing on TIP) were reviewed by a group of academics and specialists in the field, who gathered in late-April in Vienna for an Expert Group Meeting to discuss and help fine tune the modules before their upcoming launch.

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and the Protocols thereto, namely the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, are the main international instruments to counter these crimes and address the different responses they deserve.

The difference between TIP and SOM, in addition to numerous aspects of smuggling and trafficking, is duly addressed and clarified in a dedicated module in the course. The course begins with a module introducing the migrant smuggling phenomenon, followed by modules discussing the specific crime type of migrant smuggling and the criminal and non-criminal justice responses, and the prevention and the suppression of SOM. As a whole, the seven modules are designed to be locally relevant and adaptable to the students' educational context, allowing professors to vary case studies, to alternate between modules, and even to vary the degree of focus on legal or other details in order to include other material on more conceptually fitting issues.

The modules were positively received by the experts, who had the opportunity to collectively work on the drafts and provide comments and inputs to better adapt the modules to their respective areas of study. As Luigi Achilli, from Florence's European University Institute, explained: "What makes these modules better than others, the reason why I really trust what we are doing today, is the applicability of this module outside the specificity of your discipline. As an anthropologist, I may teach a class on the smuggling of migrants from a very anthropological perspective, which would inevitably give a bias and a partial understanding. The good thing about these modules is that they try to be general enough and to encompass the different perspectives, while at the same time being specific, and this has to do with the structure, because each module can be used as a standalone piece of teaching."

This detailed feedback, and the modules themselves, were immediately put into practice in a pilot test following the two-day expert group meeting. For the occasion, undergraduate students from Queen Mary University of London, and from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, were invited to spend a day at UNODC headquarters, becoming the first students to attend two classes on SOM.

Professor Jose Escribano Ubeda-Portugues, from Carlos III University of Madrid, taught a module on "Migrant Smuggling as a Specific Crime Type," while Professor Stephanie Maher, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, taught a module on "Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons; different but intermeshing phenomena." The mock classes included group exercises, case studies and even a mock test at the end of the day, after which students had a much broader understanding of the legal intricacies of migrant smuggling, and a keen interest to learn more about the subject. One student specifically mentioned that "the grey-areas at the intersection between the smuggling of migrants and the trafficking in persons were of special interest," while another was satisfied to have "obtained in-depth understanding of the protocol to fight organized crime."

The finalized modules will be launched in June, and will be available for professors all over the world online at

Additional information:
Education for Justice initiative
UNODC's work on SOM