Forced migration: a humanitarian tragedy exploited by smugglers

Photo: UNODC23 October 2012 - Over 70 million people, more than one in every 100 of the world's citizens, are forced migrants, displaced by conflict, political upheaval, violence and disasters but also by climate change and development projects, according to World Disasters Report 2012 of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Of these, some 50 million irregular migrants are believed to have used the services of smugglers at some stage of their journey, says the United Nations Development Programme.

This was the subject of a side event in Vienna last week during the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. In order to enhance international cooperation with regard to this complex phenomenon, UNODC has signed memorandums of understanding with IFRC, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration.

Many migrants move voluntarily, seeking better economic opportunities and different lifestyles. Others, such as refugees and asylum seekers, are forced to flee from conflict, repression or persecution. Forced migrants often confront life-threatening dangers in transit and exploitation and abuse upon reaching their destinations. They may be extorted, beaten or raped, which in turn can give rise to public health risks such as drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.

The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, defines migrant smuggling as the facilitation of illegal border crossings or of illegal residence in a country with the aim of making a financial or other material profit. At the Conference of the Parties, Member States passed a resolution to strengthen support for the Protocol, of which UNODC is the guardian.

Migrants who cannot afford high-cost, low-risk smuggling options are forced to undertake low-cost, high-risk journeys. It is estimated that criminals generate around $6.75 billion each year from the smuggling of migrants along just two of the principal routes used for such smuggling, namely from East, North and West Africa to Europe and from South America to North America, says UNODC.

While criminals gross an estimated $150 million annually from smuggling migrants from Africa to Europe, according to UNODC, between 1,500 and 2,000 lives are lost in the Mediterranean Sea every year, says UNHCR.

National authorities may be unable to identify and assist smuggled migrants, who may not be treated as victims in need of protection but rather as illegal migrants committing a perceived "crime". IFRC says that responses in destination countries that focus only on "irregular migration", without considering the criminal processes involved, will fail to disrupt smuggling. Adequate protection of and assistance for forced migrants is necessary to prosecute criminals.

Returning intercepted migrants to their place of origin allows criminals to smuggle them again. Meanwhile, prosecutions of smugglers will fail unless those who could testify against them are empowered to support the process of bringing criminals to justice. Finally, says IFRC, humanitarian and criminal justice actors must harmonize their work.

In July 2012, UNODC assumed the chair of the Global Migration Group, a United Nations inter-agency group that brings together heads of agencies to promote the wider application of all relevant international and regional instruments and standards relating to migration and to encourage the adoption of more coherent, comprehensive and better coordinated approaches to the issue of international migration.

As a form of transnational organized crime, the smuggling of migrants is the subject of a new campaign by UNODC. Information on the awareness campaign can be found at and includes a video, which is also available from The campaign page also includes a dedicated section and fact sheet on the smuggling of migrants, which is available from

Related Information:

UNODC on human trafficking and smuggling of migrants