COVID-19 and Crime: How Migrant Smugglers Prosper

Vienna (Austria) 6 December 2021 – As businesses and industries worldwide continue to struggle with the economic downturn caused by the COVID pandemic, the illicit trade of migrant smuggling has continued to flourish.

Today, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launches a new publication in English, French and Spanish on the impact of COVID-19 on the smuggling of migrants.

The report highlights how the criminal networks behind this highly profitable enterprise are taking advantage of the restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus and reports on the increased abuse, neglect and even risk of death faced by the migrants.

“When people are desperate to leave their home countries or current place of residence but have no regular means to migrate, the illegal and dangerous options offered by smugglers are often the only way out,” says Tiphanie Crittin, the main author of the report.

“And despite the global pandemic and restrictions in movement, we see that large numbers of migrants and refugees are still attempting to cross borders, and many of them are dying in the process.”

UNODC research shows that lockdown measures, such as the closure of borders, airports, and visa processing offices, mean that many refugees and migrants have no alternative but to resort to the services of smugglers to start or continue their journey. 

“As a result, there are even more opportunities for the criminal networks, in particular among people in communities that had suffered job losses due to the pandemic and need to migrate in search of new employment opportunities,” says Ms. Crittin. “We know that crime thrives in times of crisis.”

Further findings of the UNODC analysis shows that smugglers are using more remote and riskier routes in harsher conditions to avoid stricter controls and surveillance at entry points and border crossings.  

For such journeys, smugglers are demanding higher fees and migrants are more exposed to violence and exploitation, which are widespread traits of this crime, especially when migrants cannot pay or are faced with additional fees during transit.

Martin Fowke, who leads UNODC’s normative and policy work on migrant smuggling, explains: “The situation for people on the move has also worsened because many governments have reduced the availability of regular channels for migration and asylum that were already limited before the pandemic. This has also led to an increase in business for the smugglers.”

Cases involving refugees and migrants, including children, being stranded and left in precarious conditions in camps, shelters, or simply abandoned on the streets are included in the UNODC publication.

In such situations they have limited access to water, sanitation facilities, and healthcare and are more exposed to contracting COVID-19.

“In their fight against migrant smuggling, States must remember to always uphold the human rights of all people on the move,” says Mr. Fowke.

The publication, which will be presented during this week’s session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, concludes with a series of recommendations to prevent migrant smuggling and protect smuggled migrants during times of crisis.


Further Information

COVID-19_and Migrant Smuggling Publication

Migrant Smuggling (

Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants