Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants 2018


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2018


This report presents detailed information about 30 major smuggling routes worldwide, including the magnitude and value of smuggling routes, profiles of smugglers and smuggled migrants, modus operandi of smugglers, and risks faced by smuggled migrants. The report highlights the key differences between migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons, pertaining to consent, purpose of exploitation, transnationality, source of criminal profits, and object of the crime. It also makes a distinction between smuggling of migrants (i.e. facilitating irregular forms of migration for a financial or other material benefit) and irregular migration (i.e. conduct and status of migrants themselves). Key findings include:

  • Migrant smuggling occurs in all regions of the world, although intensity varies across locations.
  • Migrant smuggling is a big and profitable business. At least 2.5 million migrants were smuggled in 2016 for an economic return of US$5.5-7 billion.
  • Migrant smuggling is driven by a myriad of supply and demand factors. Smugglers advertise their services where migrants can be easily reached, e.g. diaspora communities, refugee camps or online social networks. Demand is determined by: (a) need to migrate due to armed conflict, persecution, socio-economic hardship, family reunification etc.; (b) mobility regulations and restrictions; (c) expensive and lengthy procedures to obtain regular travel documents; (d) marketing and misinformation by smugglers; and (e) smugglers’ recruitment and community pressure. Demand is particularly high among refugees.
  • Routes and travel methods vary, determined by geography, border control, migration policy in destination countries, smugglers’ connections across countries, and cost of services offered by smugglers. Land routes are more common than sea or air routes, which generally require more resources and organization. Border control measures do not typically reduce the number of smuggled migrants but rather lead to changes in smuggling routes, increased risk for migrants, and more opportunities for smugglers to profit. In contrast to routes, smuggling hubs tend to be stable over time.
  • The organization and scale of smuggling operations vary. Smugglers may work largely on their own, within a small network in one or two countries, or as part of large, complex multinational organizations. Smaller-scale smugglers are either ethnically linked to the territories where they operate, or share ethnic/linguistic ties with the migrants they smuggle. Many smuggling networks engage in systematic corruption. However, smuggling networks are generally not involved in other forms of major transnational organized crime. In some parts of the world (e.g. along the border between the US and Mexico), smuggling networks do have links with large violent criminal organizations that they have to pay for the ‘right’ to safe passage for migrants.
  • Most smuggled migrants are young men. On some routes, notably in parts of South-East Asia, women comprise large shares of smuggled migrants. Many smuggling flows include unaccompanied or separated children, who are particularly vulnerable to deception or abuse.
  • Smuggled migrants are vulnerable to a range of risks including violence, theft, extortion, exploitation, sexual violence, kidnapping, trafficking and death. There are thousands of deaths due to smuggling activities each year, with around 50 percent occurring on the Mediterranean route due to drowning, harsh conditions and illness, homicides and vehicle/train accidents.

The report makes the following recommendations to tackle migrant smuggling:

  • Ratifying/acceding to the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, and ensuring full implementation, including the defining element of ‘financial and other material’ (which protects persons who provide assistance to migrants solely for family and/or humanitarian motives).
  • Equipping and training organizations providing assistance to migrants as well as law enforcement and migration authorities to address the particular vulnerabilities of children who are smuggled.
  • Integrating different types of interventions and broadening geographical coverage to include countries of origin, transit, and destination. Targeting smuggling hubs, since these are more stable than routes.
  • Taking into account the complex supply and demand factors that drive smuggling.
  • Making regular migration opportunities more accessible in origin countries and refugee camps.
  • Raising awareness in communities of origin, and particularly in refugee camps, about the dangers involved in smuggling. Engaging the private sector (e.g. telecommunications and social media corporations) to expand access to lifesaving information.
  • Providing alternative livelihood programs to communities that rely on income from migrant smuggling to reduce the economic incentives that attract small-scale smugglers.
  • Improving regional and international cooperation and national criminal justice responses, including financial sanctions (e.g. effective mechanisms to confiscate proceeds of crime).
  • Enforcing anti-corruption mechanisms at borders and within consular and migration authorities.
  • Improving data collection, analysis and research on migrant smuggling.


Decisions to Flee