Southern Africa: a regional response to migrant smuggling

UNODC and the Secretariat of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) jointly organized the first ever regional meeting to discuss the challenges posed by migrant smuggling. Photo: UNODC

17 June 2016 - As in regions across the globe, people in Southern Africa move continuously for a range of reasons: to seek employment, to escape poverty, to reunite with their families, or to flee from conflicts. Despite existing migration regulations, they face difficulties in accessing legal channels for migration and often turn to smugglers to reach their destination.

Recently, UNODC and the Secretariat of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) jointly organized the first ever regional meeting to discuss the challenges posed by migrant smuggling. The event brought together senior immigration, police and judicial officials from 11 SADC Member States.

SADC Director for Politics, Defence and Security Affairs, Jorge Cardoso, noted that the smuggling of migrants "has become a complex multi-million dollar illegal business, linked to trafficking in persons, and which has the potential to undermine national, regional, continental and global security."

For her part, UNODC Regional Representative, Zhuldyz Akisheva, encouraged SADC Member States to take a comprehensive and inter-agency approach to these challenges by integrating the justice response to the national efforts for managing migration flow. In this context, this first regional encounter among criminal justice practitioners can establish a platform for regular action-oriented cooperation.

In examining the routes used to smuggle migrants, SADC countries noted with concern the organized nature of crime in the region, and how the enterprise appeared to generate large profits for the criminals involved, at a high human cost. People being fully dependent on smugglers become an easy target for exploitation and abuse. This was emphasized by the criminal justice practitioners participating at the meeting, who voiced particular concern on the increased trend of unaccompanied minors smuggled across the region and the exposure of women and children to sexual abuse during smuggling.

Reports delivered during the workshop also showed that Southern Africa serves as a transit and a destination country for people on the move from other regions in Africa, as well as Asia. Smuggling of migrants is a security challenge in the region because it undermines the states' ability to protect national borders and puts the lives and safety of migrants at risk, while generating enormous profits for criminals, in turn fuelling corruption and organized crime.

According to data shared by participants, over 350,000 migrants were deported from South Africa during the period 2012-2016 with some 343,000 of them being nationals of SADC countries. It is not known how many of these people were smuggled into the country, but more than 4,500 criminal cases were investigated in this regard. While South Africa was identified as the main destination in the region for smuggled migrants, the criminal justice practitioners pointed out that due to the scope and regional implications of illegal migration not a single country can deal with this issue on its own.

The discussion provided a region-wide platform to enhance information sharing among SADC countries on smuggling of migrants, and can further enable them to jointly address this in line with the Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which complements the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

In this regard, the SADC Secretariat has developed a draft Regional Strategy to Combat Illegal Migration, Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons which further advances an existing regional 10-year strategy to combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children. SADC has also put in place an anti-corruption Committee in line with its Protocol against Corruption in order to strengthen measures against alleged corrupt officials working at borders.

However, despite regional cooperation initiatives, the number of criminal cases against smugglers are critically low. The criminal justice representatives at the meeting acknowledged that challenges remain in having specific national legislations and cross-border cooperation which can better enable an effective criminal justice response to this issue.

Addressing this challenge, a presentation on the international legal framework on smuggling of migrants during the meeting highlighted the importance of developing said domestic legislation in alignment with the UN Protocol. Furthermore, in migrant smuggling, the criminal focus should be on the facilitation of illegal entry for financial material benefit, while the migrants themselves should not be criminalized.

The discussion was delivered within the UNODC Regional Programme for Southern Africa, supported by UNODC's Global Programme against the Smuggling of Migrants and the European Union-UNODC Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants. The Global Action is a recently-unveiled initiative jointly developed by UNODC, UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration.

Further information:

UNODC in Southern Africa

UNODC/EU Global Action against Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants

UNODC's work on smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons