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Southern Europe: Overview of existing migrant smuggling data and research


Since the peak of 2015, the number of irregular border crossings in Europe’s external borders has reduced significantly. From the 2015 high of 1.8 million, in 2016 over half a million crossings were detected, a figure that reduced by a further 60 per cent in 2017. Most of these detected crossings took place in Europe’s southern coasts into five Southern European countries: Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain. The first two – Greece and Italy – are among the top five European destinations for migrants who use smuggling services, with the highest concentration of smuggling hotspots in the European Union, followed closely by Spain.

Southern Europe represents a unique subregion for research on migrant smuggling, being the Mediterranean smuggling routes, particularly the central one, the riskiest in the world. They accounted for about two thirds of migrant deaths and missing migrants worldwide in 2015–2016, and almost 60 per cent in 2017. This trend is not abating, rather the opposite, to judge from the available figures for 2018 so far.

From the review of the data and literature, three main substantive findings on Southern Europe emerge.

  • First, migrant smuggling into the region is a demand-driven market with relatively low barriers of entry and a high degree of competition among rather autonomous and independent smugglers. Data show that about 80 to 90 per cent of the migrants who are trying to reach European coasts use facilitation or smuggling services.
  • Secondly, in many cases, smugglers are involved in other areas of crime. Drug trafficking, property crime and document forging are among the most common. On the other hand, even if several studies report abuse and exploitation, others find that some smugglers also follow an ethical code and hold responsibility for their actions.
  • Third, European and national anti-smuggling policies target the supply side (i.e. smugglers). The needs and characteristics of the demand (i.e. the migrants), as well as the social context in which these arise, are afforded less emphasis.

Although many efforts have been made to analyze existing data and research on migrant smuggling in the region, the illicit character and the sensitive nature of the phenomenon hinder its understanding. Discussed report presents four main challenges and identifies different ways forward.

  • First, the available data on the Mediterranean are spread among the several institutions that provide them, which makes access complex. To improve this, some initiatives have been put in place. The recent global Migration Data Portal was launched on 15 December 2017 with the aim to create a unique access point to timely and comprehensive migration statistics, including beyond smuggling.
  • Second, due to the complexity of smuggling, sophisticated analyses should continue to be done in order to understand the phenomenon in a comprehensive way. The efforts of organizations, such as Europol or the European Migration Network, contribute in increasing the knowledge on how smuggling works. These organizations place a special focus on the Mediterranean.
  • Third, the overview of the research on Southern Europe has shown an increase of the so-called sociological approach to migrant smuggling. However, the criminological approach is still predominant. The main data providers are ministries of Interior, border control agencies and international security forces, which offer an important but partial understanding of migrant smuggling. More evidence based on sociological accounts is therefore necessary to fill the existing knowledge gaps and complement criminological approaches.
  • Fourth, better coordination between policy and research findings would be desirable.

Interested in learning how smuggling research is conducted in other parts of the world? Access full report on Migrant Smuggling Data and Research at the link.

See also Part I “How to further build evidence base on migrant smuggling? 7 suggestions by IOM”

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The Project is implemented
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Organization for Migration