Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants
The UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants provides a knowledge base on migrant smuggling in different regions.
The Observatory is a UNODC Research project.
The research findings are intended to inform responses, as per the international Smuggling of Migrants Protocol:
  • to prevent and combat smuggling of migrants
  • to promote cooperation among States on counter-smuggling
  • to protect the rights of smuggled people

Latest Update on Smuggling in Central Med - March 2022!

Key Findings on Smuggling Routes
To access the analysis, click on the smuggling routes below (more routes will be covered soon!)


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1. COVID-19 has not halted smuggling of migrants in West and North Africa and the Central Mediterranean, with more people arriving in Italy during 2020-2021 compared to 2019.

2. The groups of people being smuggled across the Central Mediterranean have changed. From a majority of West Africans prior to 2019, the majority are now North Africans, as well as Bangladeshis.

3. Smugglers in West Africa tend to operate only at one border, and make opportunistic connections with other actors, while smugglers operating in Libya are more sophisticated, with higher involvement of transnational organized crime.

4. Smugglers are commonly paid in cash, in advance of each leg of an irregular journey, with the Central Mediterranean sea crossing always paid separately from smuggling by land.

5. A key role of migrant smugglers in this context is paying bribes on behalf of people on the move, with payments made to state and non-state actors.

6. Demand for smuggling arises from people’s strong motivations for migration, combined with a lack of access to legal pathways for travel. Obstacles to exercising free movement rights and safety concerns also contribute to smuggling demand in West Africa.

7. Regular and irregular movements are interlinked, so some travel facilitators enable regular border crossings and regular stay, while others commit migrant smuggling offences.

8. Rights violations of smuggled people are prevalent on these routes, particularly in Libya. When they are perpetrated by smugglers, deprivation of liberty, trafficking in persons and sexual and gender-based violence constitute aggravated smuggling offences, yet in most cases the perpetrators are actors other than the smugglers themselves.

Click here to open the StoryMap and access all of the key findings, interactive maps and graphs, statistics, infographics, case studies and research methodology!


1. Most people smuggled by land to Morocco enter from Algeria, with West and Central Africans having reached Algeria through Mali or Niger. Some are then smuggled to Spain by land or sea across the Western Mediterranean.

2. Compared to the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes, the proportion of people smuggled is lower on the Western Mediterranean, with many people travelling independently.

3. Over 16,300 people used this sea route in 2021 (as of 11.2021); 63% were Algerians, 29% Moroccans and the rest Sub-Saharan Africans.

4. Smugglers operating in West and Central Africa, Algeria and Morocco comprise small groups of loosely connected people or individuals, active only at specific border crossing points.

5. Refugees and migrants contact smugglers in North Africa through members of their communities. “Chairmen” (community leaders) refer them to smugglers and/or intermediate temporary work on farms, in mines, and domestic work. Some of these referrals, often carried out in exchange for a fee, also present elements of trafficking in persons.

6. The involvement of transnational organized criminal groups is less common, though non-state armed groups active in the Sahel profit indirectly from migrant smuggling by extorting fees for passage.

7. Profits from migrant smuggling on these routes are limited, with many refugees and migrants paying less than US$1,300 in total for smuggling within Africa. The sea crossing is paid separately, and generally costs US$1,300-2,800.

8. People risk their lives crossing deserts, sand berms and the sea, with increasing numbers of people dying during 2020-2021. Smuggled people are also at risk of deprivation of liberty, extortion, trafficking, and physical violence, perpetrated by armed groups, state authorities, smugglers, “chairmen” and other criminals.

Click here to open the StoryMap and access all of the key findings, interactive maps and graphs, statistics, infographics, case studies and research methodology!


1. Because of violence, lack of access to travel documents, and corruption, some Nigerians use migrant smugglers within West Africa. Nigerians use smugglers at a higher rate than other West Africans for travel by land within West and North Africa.

2. Corruption is a key driver of the use of smugglers within the ECOWAS free movement area in West Africa, because smugglers can negotiate lower bribes with state officials at borders and security checkpoints.

3. The smuggling modus operandi is that local smuggling agents collect a fee at the client’s location of origin in Nigeria, and in return provide the contact details of the smuggler at the next point in the journey, who provides the next contact, and so on.

4. Smuggled Nigerians are victims of aggravated smuggling offences perpetrated by smugglers, and of abuses by other actors, and are forced to witness violence perpetrated against family members.

5. Three-quarters of Nigerians surveyed said that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted their experiences. Their migration journeys became more difficult because of border restrictions and the pandemic increased the existing risks of migration.

6. Nigerians pay an average of US$610 in fees for smuggling by land within West and North Africa. Fees cover access to the network of smuggling contacts and transportation, and sometimes also bribes and accommodation.

7. Nigerian women are significantly more likely than men to pay the smuggler with their labor than in cash – a key indicator of vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

8. Nigerians are smuggled by air to the Middle East, particularly from states in the North West zone, through registered travel agents who commit document fraud offences.

9. Smuggling of migrants from Nigeria across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe significantly decreased during the past five years. Nigerians are now more commonly smuggled along the Eastern Mediterranean route from Türkiye to Bulgaria and Greece, than along the Central Mediterranean route from Libya and Tunisia to Italy.

10. Some national counter-smuggling efforts take the approach of preventing Nigerians from leaving the country, rather than pursuing criminal smuggling actors and providing protection to victims of abuses.

Click here to open the StoryMap and access all of the key findings, interactive maps and graphs, statistics, infographics, case studies and research methodology!


1. Sea smuggling routes to Spain shift in response to changes in border control practices. The numbers of people smuggled along the Northwest African (Atlantic) Route have increased significantly since 2020, as border patrolling on the Western Mediterranean Route from northern Morocco to mainland Spain was reinforced and the numbers of people using that route decreased.

2. People were smuggled to the Canaries in overcrowded rubber boats for the first time during late 2021, departing from the closest departure points in southern Morocco and the north of the Disputed Territories of Western Sahara, to ensure the shortest and relatively safest route.

3. Nevertheless, throughout 2020-2021, to avoid interception, people were smuggled by sea from Senegal, The Gambia, and Mauritania. Boats headed south, navigating outside of search and rescue zones and cell phone networks, and risking getting caught in strong currents towards the Caribbean Sea.

4. Smuggling along the Northwest African (Route) is deadly for at least one in twenty people travelling. The true number of people who die or go missing is likely to be higher, as many deaths go unrecorded due to limited capacities to retrieve, identify and trace the bodies of people who lose their lives off the Northwest African coast, off the Canaries, in international waters and in the Caribbean.

5. Counter-smuggling investigations and prosecutions on the Canaries focus on boat drivers, who navigate the boat in return for a free or discounted passage, and are rarely members of transnational criminal organizations. The drivers are often in a position of vulnerability and may be victims of trafficking for forced criminal activities.

6. Most investigations and prosecutions do not target the crime groups on the Northwest African coast that organize smuggling of migrants along this route and profit from the crime.

7. No data is available on the numbers of girls, boys, and women arriving on the Canary Islands since 2020. The information required to ensure that responses are age- and gender-sensitive is therefore not accessible.

Click here to open the StoryMap and access all of the key findings, interactive maps and graphs, statistics, infographics, case studies and research methodology!