UNODC Calls for an Increase in Regular Migration Options to Curb Smuggling

Vienna (Austria) 21 October 2021 – “If you have to leave your country very urgently to save your life, there is often no other way than to use a smuggler,” says a 30-year-old man who had to pay 15,000 USD to get to Europe.  

“We used all sorts of transport - plane, car, boat, train, taxi - and had to walk a long time overland. Most of the time I was suffering from the cold temperatures and lack of food and water. We were sleeping outside and were beaten up regularly,” he adds.

But when asked if he regrets using the services of a smuggler his answer is “no”, as otherwise he would now be “dead, due to torture or in prison”.

This man is just one of thousands of people who every year embark on long and dangerous journeys across the globe in search of safety, opportunities for education and employment, or a reunion with their families.

Around 400 experts from 80 countries have adopted key recommendations on ways to reduce demand for migrant smuggling through the availability of pathways for regular migration during a meeting of the Working Group on the Smuggling of Migrants.   

This annual event is the principal forum within the UN system for discussions on current issues related to the implementation of the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.  

The debate centred around a background paper prepared by the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which explains how an increase in regular migration options can limit smuggling activities while benefiting both the people on the move and the destination countries.

“Regular channels of migration are ways to enter a country that are organised and permitted by States, such as student visas, family reunification visas, work permits or humanitarian visas,” explains Martin Fowke, who leads UNODC’s normative and policy work on migrant smuggling.

“However, despite needs on both sides - for example, of people to leave their home countries and the need to address specific labour shortages in developed countries - regular channels of migrating can be very restricted. This means that many migrants in desperate situations have no option but to cross borders by paying smugglers,” he adds.  

According to UNODC’s Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants, the demand for smuggling services is largely determined by both limited legal channels, which cannot satisfy the total demand for regular migration, and the costs of legal migration, which some migrants simply cannot afford.

“Irregular channels are often more dangerous too,” explains Mr. Fowke. “People who pay smugglers are not protected by State authorities. They put their lives and money into the hands of the smugglers and this leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.”

UNODC research shows that smuggled migrants are regularly subjected to extreme violence, torture, rape and kidnapping while in transit or captivity.

Migrant smuggling is a highly profitable crime. Smugglers try to maximize their profits and take risks by for example putting too many people on small boats or hidden in trucks in spaces not meant for people.  

“The high death toll among irregular migrants in the first half of 2021 is a reminder that States should not only combat the crime of migrant smuggling but also offer legitimate alternatives to  illegal services for people on the move,” says Martin Fowke.  

He adds: “The added value of regularising migration flows for governments is that they can better manage their borders and the access to their territory.”

Working Group participants also discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant smuggling and how smugglers have adjusted their business models.

An UNODC analysis of migrant smuggling during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that migrant smuggling networks have benefitted from the restrictive migration policies, border closures and stricter controls and surveillance at entry points that were imposed to curb the spread of the virus.

“Such measures have inadvertently increased the demand for smuggling services,” says Tiphanie Crittin, a UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer.  “In fact, many smuggling networks quickly adapted and are using more dangerous and remote routes and charging higher fees in many cases.”  

The UNODC paper also contains details of tools and resources relating to pathways for regular migration that States can explore and further develop to ensure safer, regular migration.

Migrant smuggling poses challenges that cannot be addressed by the “criminal justice system alone” but need to be dealt with in the “broader framework of international migration policies”, says Ms. Crittin and UNODC calls on States to urgently consider expanding on or creating migratory channels that are affordable and accessible.

In the absence of sufficient options for safe and regular travel, migrant smuggling will continue to provide the means, and may be the only available method, by which certain people can cross international borders to their intended countries of destination, says UNODC’s Tiphanie Crittin.  

“We hope that the practical recommendations put forward by the attendees of the Working Group will be taken up as implementation measures by the countries that are party to the UN Protocol against Migrant Smuggling and pave the way for safer migration,” she concludes.


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