Site map

The most curious findings of the Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants: 12 key takeaways


  • Smuggling of migrants is a big business with high profits

There is evidence that, at a minimum, 2.5 million migrants were smuggled for an economic return of US$5.5-7 billion in 2016. This is equivalent to what the European Union countries (some US$6 billion) spent on humanitarian aid globally in 2016. This is a minimum figure as it represents only the known portion of this crime. The smugglers’ profits stem from the fees they charge migrants for their services. The fees are largely determined by the distance of the smuggling trajectory, number of border crossings, geographic conditions, means of transport, the use of fraudulent travel or identity documents, risk of detection and even migrants’ profiles (their perceived wealth).

  • Routes change

Geography, border control, migration policy in destination countries, smugglers’ connections across countries and cost of the package offered by smugglers are among the key factors that determine the routes and the travel methods. When geography allows, land routes are widely used, more than sea or air smuggling routes that generally require more resources and organization.

In recent years, among some 400 surveyed migrants, some 10 per cent travelled by air, while only 1 per cent travelled by boat.

Measures to increase or decrease border control with consequent increased or decreased risks of detection for smuggled migrants, if taken alone, typically lead to rapid route displacement rather than changes in the overall number of smuggled migrants. Stricter border control measures often increase the risks for migrants and provide more opportunities to profit for smugglers. During the period 2009-2015, for example, a large part of the recorded smuggling activity between Turkey and the European Union shifted from land passages to sea crossings, in response to increased controls at different borders.

  • Smugglers are often ethnically connected to smuggled migrants

As a general pattern, smaller-scale smugglers are either ethnically linked to the territories where they operate, or they share ethnic or linguistic ties with the migrants they smuggle. Smugglers who are in charge of recruiting, promoting and selling smuggling packages normally market their activities to people from the same community or same ethnic group, or at least the same citizenship. Smugglers in charge of facilitating the actual border crossing have extensive knowledge of the territory to be crossed and the best methods to reach the destination. Ethnic and/or linguistic ties between smugglers and migrants is one of the elements that often brings migrants and smugglers together. A reliable connection is key in a market that is unregulated by definition. When demanding smuggling services, migrants seek well-reputed smugglers. In presenting their offer, smugglers aim to establish a relationship of trust with migrants. The pressing need for migrants to move and the vast information gaps seem, however, to impede migrants from making an informed decision. As a consequence, migrants try to reduce these information gaps by relying on the opinion of their communities, relatives and friends, and more recently, social media.

  • Smugglers often engage in corruption and in rare cases cooperate with criminal organizations

Generally, smuggling networks seem not to be involved in other forms of major transnational organized crime. In some parts of the world, however, smugglers may hand over migrants to such groups for extortion of ransom, robbery or other exploitation. Many smuggling networks engage in systematic corruption at most levels; from petty corruption at individual border control points to grand corruption at higher levels of government. Corrupt practices linked to migrant smuggling have been reported along nearly all the identified routes.

  • Smuggled migrants are mainly young men

Most smuggled migrants are relatively young men between the ages of 18 and 35. That is not to say that women and children are not smuggled or do not engage in smuggling.

  • Migrant smuggling can be deadly

Every year, thousands of migrants die during smuggling activities. Accidents, extreme terrain and weather conditions, as well as deliberate killings have been reported along most smuggling routes. Systematic killings of migrants have also been reported, making this a very violent illicit trade. The reported deaths – most of them along sea smuggling routes - represent only the tip of the iceberg of the ultimate human cost suffered by smuggled migrants. Many migrant deaths are likely to go unreported.

In addition to fatalities, smuggled migrants are also vulnerable to a range of other forms of crime. Some of the frequently reported types faced by smuggled migrants include violence, rape, theft, kidnapping, extortion and trafficking in persons. Such violations have been reported along all the smuggling routes considered. In addition, smugglers’ quest for profit may also lead them to neglect the safety of migrants during journeys. For example, smugglers may set off without sufficient food and drink, the vehicles they use might be faulty, and migrants who fall ill or are injured along the way might not receive any care.

  • Organization and duration

If an entire route is designed and offered by smugglers as a package, the duration of the travel may be relatively short, usually lasting a few weeks, or perhaps months. The smugglers provide migrants with lists of contacts for each step of the travel. Once they have successfully managed to cross one border, the smuggled migrants may be instructed to move to a specific location and to contact a particular person who will facilitate the crossing of the next border. This continues until the final destination is reached. Smuggling organizations operating in this way are able to move people relatively fast. For example, surveys have shown that smugglers can move migrants from South Asia through West Asia and into Greece along the Eastern Mediterranean route in approximately 15-20 days.

  • Smuggling patterns

A pattern that emerges from the analysis of sea smuggling routes is that smugglers sometimes choose to target islands that may be distant from the mainland, but still under the authority of the destination country. Smugglers operating along the Central Mediterranean route, for example, have targeted the Italian island of Lampedusa as a point of arrival, located less than 300 kilometres north of Libya, and more than 200 kilometres south of the Italian mainland. These arrival points offer physical entry into the closest territory (relative to the location of the smuggled migrants) of a destination country. The majority of migrants that arrive in these small islands do not intend to remain there, but want to continue to the mainland. The choice of these arrival points is usually motivated by the opportunity to apply for asylum. The targeting of these small islands has largely stopped in view of various policy measures in destination countries.

  • The role of hubs

While routes may change, smuggling hubs, where the demand and supply of smuggling services meet, are rather stable over time.

Hubs are key to the migrant smuggling crime. They serve as meeting places where disparate routes converge and arrangements are made for subsequent travel. Often, the locations of smuggling hubs are capitals or large cities, although they may also be remote towns where much of the economic activity is linked to migrant smuggling. Agadez in Niger, for example, is a transit for current smuggling flows, with hundreds of thousands having organized their trip from West Africa to Europe there.

In the hubs, smugglers are not the only ones providing services for – and making money off - migrants. For example, enterprising locals may sell telephone or communication services, and residents may rent out rooms, apartments or houses. In well-organized hubs, there may be several hundred people involved in a smuggling network, including boat owners, boat makers, boat crews, owners of restaurants and cafés, accommodation managers, telephone centres etc.

  • Motivation to migrate and reasons to use a smuggler

A distinction is often made between those who migrate with the primary motive of improving their economic perspective, so-called ‘economic migrants’, and those who escape persecution and conflict, refugees. Migrants and refugees typically use a smuggler when facing obstacles to migrate.

  • What does smuggling involve: selling and organizing

Smugglers often advertise their services in places where migrants may be found, such as railway stations, cafes, bazaars and other meeting places. In smuggling hubs, smugglers advertise their services openly, sometimes by displaying photos from destination countries with grateful clients showing off their sporty cars and new clothes. As modern enterprises, smugglers also advertise their services through various social media channels. Smugglers are usually found by word of mouth through extended networks.

  • Smuggling of migrants and social media

The internet is used to share recommendations (or negative reviews) of migrant smugglers as well as information about routes and prices. Syrians, in particular, make extensive use of technology and social networks, such as Facebook, Viber, Skype and WhatsApp, to share their insights.

In destination countries, smuggled migrants publish feedback about smugglers and their services; exposing cases where smugglers failed, cheated or treated migrants badly. Migrants and refugees also comment on their experiences in the receiving countries.

Social media channels are also used to promote smuggling services. In some Facebook pages, smugglers pretend to work for NGOs or fake European Union agencies tasked with organizing the safe passage to Europe by sea. Smugglers targeting Afghan migrants have also been found to pose as ‘legal advisors’ for asylum on social media.


See also:

  The Project is funded
by the European
The Project is implemented
by the International
Organization for Migration