International Migrants Day 2021

Vienna (Austria) 18 December 2021 - As the world marks International Migrants Day, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) urges countries to uphold human rights while combatting the criminal networks who smuggle migrants for profit.

Further calls are for better access to pathways for regular migration, an adherence to obligations that are enshrined in international treaties and increased cooperation between countries to apprehend and prosecute the ringleaders behind the migrant smuggling enterprises.

“On this day, we stand in solidarity and compassion with all women, men and children on the move and call on countries to redouble their commitment to safe, regular and dignified migration,” says UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly.

Migrant smuggling is a global and lucrative form of organized crime that endangers the safety, security, and lives of the migrants involved. It undermines national border management efforts and generates profits that fuel other illegal activities.

In a review of just 30 smuggling routes, UNODC's Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants found that smugglers can earn up to seven million USD in one year.

“When people are desperate to leave their home countries or current place of residence but have no legal means to migrate, the illicit options offered by smugglers are often the only way out,”  says Ilias Chatzis, Chief of the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section.

“Migrant smugglers are not humanitarians and their motives not altruistic. They profit from selling illegal services to desperate people. Journeys can be long, arduous and dangerous and the conditions inhumane,” he adds.

A recent UNODC study shows that smuggled migrants are regularly subjected to extreme violence, abuse, rape and kidnapping while in transit. Despite the severity of these offences, little action is taken by national authorities and, in some cases, officials may even be complicit in these crimes.

“For over 20 years, we have been supporting countries to counter migrant smuggling, and we increasingly see the need for the protection of the smuggled migrants to be an integral component in crime prevention responses,” says Mr. Chatzis.

The UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, recognizes the need for States to assist and protect smuggled migrants and not treat them as criminals because of their involvement in the smuggling act.

Other international commitments, including the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, also call on countries to guarantee the safety, dignity, and human rights of migrants.

“Migrant smuggling can only be stopped if States work closely together within the framework provided by the UN Protocol and other relevant global policy agreements,” says Ilias Chatzis.

“This is why UNODC is an active and committed member of the United Nations Network on Migration which assists countries to implement the Global Compact for Migration.”

According to UNODC research 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 that some migrants simply cannot afford.

“Therefore, we call for the establishment of migratory channels that are affordable and accessible.  The high death toll among irregular migrants in 2021 is a reminder of the need for such regular pathways,” says Mr. Chatzis.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, large numbers of migrants and refugees are still attempting to cross borders.  

Mobility restrictions, including border closures and increased surveillance are leading smugglers to revert to more dangerous and remote routes where migrants are faced with an increased risk of abuse, neglect and even death.

A publication from UNODC shows that the pandemic has created more opportunities for migrant smugglers.

“COVID has caused major job losses, especially in informal sectors. The long-term effects of such an unprecedented global health, economic and mobility crisis are likely to lead to an increase in migration,” says Ilias Chatzis.  “If people do not have options for regular migration, migrant smuggling with continue to flourish.”

UNODC is the leading entity within the United Nations system to support the development and implementation of criminal justice responses to migrant smuggling that uphold the human rights of the migrants. 

Recently launched initiatives include the UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants which provides a knowledge base on migrant smuggling in different parts of the world and STARSOM a project to counter migrant smuggling and protect the lives and rights of migrants across major smuggling routes leading to North America.


Further Information

International Migrants Day