Migrant smuggling is defined in the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, as ‘the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident’. In general terms, migrant smuggling is about making money by assisting a person to enter or stay in a country without having the legal permission to do so. Migrant smugglers are driven by the desire for financial or material gain. They are not motivated by altruistic or humanitarian reasons. Migrant smuggling affects the sovereignty of States over their borders and is a criminal act under the domestic law of many States.
Learn more about migrant smuggling here.


These are two distinct but often interconnected crimes. While human trafficking aims to exploit a person, who may or may not be a migrant, the purpose of smuggling is, by definition, to make profits from facilitating illegal border crossing. Human trafficking can take place within the victim’s home country or in another country. Migrant smuggling always happens across national borders. Some migrants might start their journey by agreeing to be smuggled into a country illegally but end up as victims of human trafficking when they are deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation later in the process, for example being forced to work for no or very little money to pay for their transportation. Criminals may both smuggle and traffic people, employing the same routes and methods of transporting them. Smuggled migrants have no guarantee that those who smuggle them are not in fact human traffickers.
Learn more about migrant smuggling here.
Learn more about human trafficking here.


Migrant smuggling happens when people face barriers to orderly and regular migration and when individuals or organized criminals seek opportunities to profit from the situation. Smugglers take advantage of people who need to escape natural disaster, conflict or persecution, poverty linked to these and similar conditions, destitution or lack or employment and education opportunities but do not have the options to migrate legally. Demand for smuggling services is particularly high among refugees and asylum seekers who, for lack of other means, may need to use smugglers in order to reach a safe destination after fleeing their country of origin. Smugglers sometimes contribute to generating demand for their services through proactive recruitment and misinformation which increase the number of migrants who are willing to make use of smuggling services.


Migrant smuggling affects all countries in the world, as countries of origin, transit and/or destination. Main smuggling routes include African routes towards North and Southern Africa and Asian routes towards Europe and the Middle East, or to wealthier countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific. Further routes head to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, while land routes operate between Latin America and North America. In addition, smuggling can occur by air, undertaken with counterfeit or fraudulently obtained documents, or via hazardous overland journeys across deserts, mountains, lakes and rivers. Europol has reported that more than 90 per cent of irregular migrants entering the European Union use smuggling services at some stage during their journey.


Smuggled migrants are often young men. On some routes, notably in parts of South-East Asia, women comprise large shares of smuggled migrants. The gender composition of smuggled migrant flows may also be influenced by the circumstances driving their mobility. In particular, when persecution, insecurity and conflicts are drivers, families also resort to smugglers. Many smuggling flows also include unaccompanied or separated children, who are particularly vulnerable to deception and abuse by smugglers and others. Many migrants travel on their own, which can involve both regular and irregular border crossings. They may use smuggling services on an ad-hoc basis and only at the very moment when required. Other migrants rely on pre-organized migrant smuggling services.


Migrant smugglers are criminals and not humanitarians. They are motivated by financial or material gain. They may be individual opportunists or part of a well-organized, multinational network. Smuggling ventures over short distances and across single borders do not usually require sophisticated migrant smuggling methods. Where pre-organized smuggling occurs over greater distances and involves multiple border crossings, it is common that a chain of coordinators oversee individual legs of the smuggling ventures, interact with each other and work with local groups in the countries of transit and destination. Smugglers who are in charge of recruiting, promoting and selling smuggling services normally market their activities to people from the same community or same ethnic group. Smugglers, particularly those in intermediary roles, often have the same citizenship as the migrants they smuggle. They speak the local language, know the territory and are directly involved into the actual smuggling, for example, by providing temporary accommodation or leading migrants across a border.


The lives of smuggled migrants are often put at risk. Thousands of smuggled migrants have suffocated in containers, perished in deserts or drowned at sea. Migrant smugglers often conduct their activities with little or no regard for the lives of the people whose hardships have created a demand for smuggling services. Survivors have told tales of their ordeals, which include people crammed into windowless storage spaces or forced to sit still in urine, seawater, fuel, faeces or vomit, deprived of food and water, while others around them die and their bodies are discarded at sea or on the roadside. Smuggled migrants constantly face threats of violence, abuse and even death along their journeys and at their destination. They are often victims of assault, rape, theft and extortion. Debts resulting from financing the high fees associated with migrant smuggling in combination with the migrants’ irregular status in transit and destination countries also make the migrants vulnerable to human trafficking.


Most smuggling networks are loosely connected, based on fluid contacts. However, there are also more structured organizations. For instance, in North Africa, much of the smuggling industry seems to be based on more hierarchical organizational structures than those observed in other regions. Where pre-organized smuggling occurs over greater distances and involves multiple border crossings, it is common that a chain of coordinators or organizers oversee individual legs of the smuggling ventures, interact with each other and work with local groups in the countries of transit and destination. The local service providers and coordinators are usually not part of one organization but are rather part of a flexible and informal network. As with other forms of organized crime, the main purpose of migrant smuggling is profit. Some migrants may pay upfront and in cash, while others need to arrange payment upon arrival at their destination, requiring a level of financial organization.


Migrant smuggling can generate large profits for the criminals involved with little risk of being prosecuted for their crimes. In some countries, investigations rarely lead to prosecutions and convictions. Other countries focus much of their anti-smuggling efforts on the detection of smuggled migrants rather than the detection of the smugglers and their assets. The organizers, who are usually not physically involved in bringing migrants across borders, face even less risk of detection. In these circumstances, the smuggling of migrants remains an attractive, low-risk, high-profit crime. Corruption, including bribery of customs, visa and border control officials plays a key role in migrant smuggling.


The UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air is the only internationally agreed legal instrument designed to prevent and combat smuggling of migrants. Countries that ratify the Protocol must criminalize migrant smuggling. The three main purposes of the Protocol are to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants, to promote cooperation among States that have ratified the Protocol, and to preserve and protect the rights of smuggled migrants. According to the Protocol, smuggled migrants should also not be liable for criminal prosecution for having been smuggled. If they are in detention, the detaining authorities should comply with their obligations under international law. The Protocol reminds States of the of their obligations under international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. It requires States to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.
Learn more about the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol here.


UNODC assists countries to ratify and implement the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol and bring their national legislation in line with the treaty’s legal provisions. It help countries to draft, develop and review the laws, policies, and action plans they need to effectively combat migrant smuggling and produces the necessary tools and guidelines. UNODC’s experts train and mentor the people who use these instruments to apprehend, prosecute and convict smugglers and protect the rights of the migrants. UNODC supports transnational investigations into smuggling rings and the tracing and seizure of the illicit proceeds of this crime.
More information about UNODC's response to migrant smuggling here.
UNODC’s 2018 Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants here.