Islamic Republic of Iran


UNODC New Research
How COVID-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact
migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America


The unprecedented crisis that COVID-19 has suddenly unleashed upon the world is affecting all aspects of society and is likely to influence the routes and characteristics of both regular and irregular migration. Smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons will also be affected in certain ways by the crisis. Many factors shape the dynamics of these two criminal phenomena, from the international political and security landscape to macro socio-economic dynamics and national law enforcement capacity - all of which have been affected by the global pandemic. The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, and of the measures adopted by governments to contain it, differ across the globe, and the effects of these measures on smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons are likely to vary from country to country and from region to region.

UNODC has recently published a Research Brief to analyze possible scenarios of how smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons are likely to be affected by the COVID-19 crisis along mixed migration routes to two important destination regions: North America and Europe. The paper draws on the dynamics observed during other global economic downturns, such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, to assess how the COVID-19-induced recession may affect smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons in the medium to long term. The research also reviews available information on current patterns during the COVID-19 lockdown measures and mobility restrictions, and on drivers of migration, as a way to assess possible fluctuations of trends in smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons in the near future. 

In the short term, the most recent data on the three Mediterranean migrant smuggling routes suggest these flows are continuing despite the lockdown measures in Turkey, and in North African and European countries, the economic consequences and the mobility restrictions. Arrivals from North Africa to Italy and from Morocco to Spain did not decrease during the first months of 2020. The smuggling flow along the Eastern Mediterranean route appears to have decreased, though this is perhaps more due to migration containment measures put in place to prevent departures.

Across the Mediterranean routes, migrants and refugees are caught between the need to flee conflicts, human rights abuses and poverty, dangerous open waters, the reduced Search and Rescue operations at sea and, now, the risks of COVID-19 transmission en route. The living conditions of these migrants and refugees should be of primary concern for the international community.

In other parts of the world, the medium-long term economic consequences resulting from the lockdown measures introduced to reduce the spread of COVID-19 may have an impact on trafficking and smuggling flows. In the past, countries particularly affected by prolonged unemployment have become relevant origin countries for both migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons flows to more affluent countries.

What emerges from an analysis of the economic impact on human trafficking is that an asymmetric recovery from the impending global economic crisis, may increase the risks of trafficking for people in economic need. This may be even more dramatic if the economic downturn is combined with continued stringent mobility restrictions.

The potential human rights impact of COVID-19-related restrictions on travel, movement and economic activities – and of the consequent economic downturn – on smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America may be severe. These negative impacts can be mitigated by investments in job creation and economic recovery across both developed and developing countries. The consequences in terms of increased crime, abuse, violence, exploitation and trafficking can be ameliorated by ensuring that providing avenues for safe and regular migration journeys for refugees and migrants, and regular immigration status in destination countries, is a key element of post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable and enforce rights under national laws. They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of emergency.

UNODC Recommends the following points for action:
1)      COVID-19 responses must be continuously monitored. Where such measures unintentionally negatively impact vulnerable groups, such as trafficking victims, adjustments must be made to minimize harm and to ensure the needs of such groups are adequately addressed.
2)      While prioritizing public health, a culture of rule of law needs to prevail. Anti-trafficking responses must continue to be based on human rights, while access to health care and social support without discrimination should be guaranteed.
3)      Access to justice must be safeguarded. Where feasible, technology should be utilized to facilitate access to judicial processes and enable the collection and provision of evidence, the submission of documents and the filing or adjudicating of motions or petitions to courts.
4)      Law enforcement officials must remain vigilant in addressing new and evolving crime patterns and adapt their responses to prevent human traffickers from acting with impunity during the pandemic.
5)      Despite the anticipated slowing down of economies because of COVID-19 and the resulting pressures on national budgets, countries must continue supporting anti-trafficking work and adapt their assistance programs to the new and extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic and its aftermath.
6)      There is a need for systematic data collection and analysis on the impact of COVID-19 on trafficking in persons. There is no country immune to the pandemic and as COVID-19 does not affect all regions at the same time, experience from one country could be vital to others.  

The UNODC research brief on “How COVID-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America” can be downloaded through: