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Technology in smuggling of migrants


There is a paucity of available data and research on the use of cyber-technology to facilitate smuggling crimes. However, according to the European Commission (2016), "the use of social media in migrant smuggling has witnessed an exponential growth in recent years". In 2016, ten EU Member States confirmed to the European Migration Network that social media platforms had been used to advertise smuggling services, provide information on migration routes and facilitate communication between smugglers. In 2017, UNHCR published research on the social media use of Arabic speaking and Afghan refugees and migrants. The researchers monitored hundreds of Facebook pages for a period of ten months, recording qualitative data on information exchanges between migrants, offers made by smugglers and document fraud information.

Further, there is some evidence to suggest that technology - in particular access to the Internet provided by smartphones - is changing the dynamic between smugglers and migrants and the shape of irregular migration, as explored in one study with reference to Afghan, Iranian and Syrian migrants (Zijlistra and an van Liempt, 2017). It is evidenced that information and communication technology is used in smuggling of migrants in numerous ways, further described below.



Smugglers may choose to market their services online through social media sites and "word of mouth" advertising between migrants and smugglers using smartphones. According to Brunswasser (2015), smugglers advertise their services on Facebook like "any legitimate travel agency". The UNHCR 2017 study shows that there are hundreds of these Facebook pages, offering both legal and illegal services with full contact numbers. Although difficult to measure with any precision, recruitment clearly occurs online in the context of smuggling. Technology can increase the reach of smugglers' services, facilitating recruitment within a broader range of communities without the need, necessarily, for smugglers' physical presence. As with trafficking, there is likely a correlation between the level of mobile telephone and Internet penetration in a country and the rates of smuggling.



Smartphones, emails, social media platforms and apps are used by smugglers to communicate with migrants, and by migrants to communicate with smugglers, other migrants, families and other contacts. The communication opportunities afforded to smugglers by technology allows them to better facilitate the smuggling process, respond to challenges faster, and direct migrants from afar. It is likely that communication technologies reduce the need for smugglers to physically accompany migrants across and between borders.

Importantly, electronic communication also allows smuggled migrants (and those considering being smuggled) to discuss and review the services of migrant smugglers. Online social media sites give migrants a means to learn of the experiences of others with particular smugglers, including comments on their reliability and trustworthiness. Migrants can also use the Internet to verify information obtained from smugglers through online research. This could be in relation to prices (are they being charged more than the usual asking price), the safety of the route to be used, the desirability of a destination State and the strength of its border controls (i.e. is the smuggling venture likely to be successful?).



Payments to smugglers are primarily made through cash in hand, the use of third party guarantors (family members) or through instalments on online payment systems (Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, 2017). One such example is the use of 'hawala', an informal value transfer system existing outside traditional banking systems that uses third party brokers to make transfers with no paper trail connecting the smuggler and migrant (Legorano and Parkinson, 2015). The following chart outlines which means of payment are most often used, according to Europol and INTERPOL's joint report on Migrant Smuggling Networks in 2016.  Cryptocurrencies may increase the ease with which smugglers, and the organized criminal groups they operate within, are able to receive, hide and move money. Such currencies can aid money-laundering, the transfer of funds across national borders, and can help smugglers avoid investigation and apprehension by authorities by providing anonymity and reducing the need to carry large quantities of cash.



Smugglers utilize information and communication technology to provide information and/or communicate logistical services, such as types of services offered, times, dates and pricing of services, travel options and plans, and items, supplies and any equipment needed. It can also be used to conduct research on migration routes. For example, researching which borders have lighter or stricter security and what times of day to arrive to attract the least attention. Research is also conducted to obtain information about what to expect during migration and what actions to take in certain situations (such as, what to do if apprehended by law enforcement) (Zijlstra and van Liempt, 2017).

Three trends seem to come out of a technology driven shift:

  • Less dependence on smugglers - many migrants remain dependent on smugglers for forged documents and assistance at border crossings, due to the degree of cultural isolation of migrants, language barriers and the difficulties of evading law enforcement. However, through the use of technology an increasing number of migrants is self-sufficient throughout the migration process. This gives migrants greater autonomy and reduces their vulnerability to exploitation. Brunwasser (2015) reports on the existence of Facebook groups in Arabic such as "Smuggle Yourself to Europe Without a Trafficker" and "Smuggling into the EU". Technology may also help smuggled migrants keep their family updated regarding their movements and seek advice and information about their destination. Further, translation apps, like Google Translate, can help break down language barriers and help migrants communicate with other migrants and law enforcement officials. In addition, electronic cartography and GPS systems have reduced the reliance that migrants historically had on those smuggling them across borders, by allowing migrants to navigate more easily and independently through the use of portable mobile technology and smartphone services and apps (for example, Google Maps, which maps routes and provides directions from the point of origin to the envisaged destination).
  • Class/digital divide - inequality between migrants can now be measured in terms of a digital divide. There are marked advantages to those with both the means to acquire a smartphone and the digital literacy to use it effectively (see Amran and Imran, 2015).
  • Blurring of lines between smuggler and migrant - there appears to be an increase in the number of irregular migrants who take on roles assisting more professional smugglers and/or their peers to subsidize their own journeys.
Next: Using technology to prevent and combat trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants
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