The secretive nature of this dark and deadly trade means experts can provide only an educated estimate of the profits it generates for the criminals involved. But the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) best assessment is that it’s worth a staggering $US10 billion a year.
“It could even be more,” says Frank Laczko, the director of the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin.
Laczko is a global leader in migration research and despairs about what the world still doesn’t know: how many people are engaged in smuggling, how many people are smuggled each year, and how many migrants are dying during their journeys.
The several thousand deaths the IOM documents each year is presumed to be just a fraction of the true figure.
Smugglers’ customers are all trying to escape something: the war in Syria; political oppression and arbitrary detention in Iran; religious persecution in Myanmar; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and, most commonly of all, difficult lives in poor and poverty stricken countries.
With the aid of smugglers they embark on dangerous and often deadly journeys that range in cost from a few hundred dollars, to many thousands.
African migrants fleeing violence and hunger make perilous dessert crossings on foot to reach lawless Libya, where they wait to cross the Mediterranean on decrepit boats that have carried thousands upon thousands before them to their deaths.
Asylum seekers from war-ravaged Syria hand what money they have left to smugglers who escort them to the Turkish border, despite the high likelihood that they’ll be caught, and possibly shot at, by increasingly vigilant Turkish guards.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who’ve already fled violence and persecution in Myanmar, wait in squalid camps in Bangladesh for the next chance to pay a smuggler to reach India, Nepal or Pakistan.
Central Americans determined to flee violence and poverty in their homelands are still paying smugglers to slip from Mexico into the United States, albeit in far fewer numbers after a concerted crackdown by the US Border Patrol.
Investigators say smugglers are typically part of loosely organised networks that have a vast geographic reach and players responsible for very specific tasks.
They are recruiters who scout for customers. They are forgers who specialise in fake passports and birth certificates.
They are inn-keepers who house the smuggled during their clandestine journeys. They are drivers and guides who escort migrants to the borders they will cross.
They are corrupt border officers who take a share of the profit to let people in.
But like any booming industry, the smuggling trade is evolving and with vast profits to be had, there is evidence pointing to the growing role of transnational, organised crime groups in some regions, including from Mexico to the United States.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says groups that were once active only on specific routes, or in specific regions, are expanding into new markets.
“Some have merged or formed cooperative relationships, expanding their geographical reach and range of criminal activities. For some crime groups, migrants are viewed simply as one of many commodities to be smuggled along with drugs and firearms for instance,” it says.
Observers also point to the escalating brutality of smugglers.
Earlier this year, the UN’s children’s program, Unicef, said women and children fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa were being routinely beaten, raped and starved in unofficial detention centres in Libya, controlled by militia involved in the smuggling trade.
Unicef said the centres were essentially prisons, where people were held to ransom, and coerced into prostitution and other work, with young girls even forced to have contraceptive injections so they would not fall pregnant.
ARE DESTINATION COUNTRIES FEEDING THE BEAST?
The response of many countries facing an influx of people, who arrive with or without the help of smugglers, has been to dramatically ramp up their border protection efforts.
But experts warn policy makers that such responses are actually fuelling, not fighting, the smuggling trade. The harder it is for desperate people to move, the more likely it is that they will need the help of smugglers to get where they’re going.
Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Salil Shetty is a savage critic of the hardline approaches taken by countries such as Australia, which uses its navy to turn smuggling vessels back at sea, and sends those caught onboard to immigration detention centres in third countries.
Shetty says Australia and other countries that have sought to emulate its response are not only violating international refugee and human rights conventions, but they are feeding the very industry they claim to be weakening.
“No matter how high the walls or how well armed the coastguards, people who have nothing to lose will find a way to escape unbearable situations even if it means risking their lives in dangerous journeys,” Shetty says.
Demetrios Papademetriou, of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, agrees and says the smuggling industry is growing on the back of demand driven by border protection policies.
“Strengthened border controls mean that more and more people are relying on facilitators,” he says.
The UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, says wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since records began. In it’s latest report, issued last year, it said there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2015 – up from 59.5 million a year earlier.
Most – almost 41 million – remain within the borders or confines of their birth countries, but the rest have moved. Data is too scattered and incomplete to paint an accurate picture of how many people are smuggled across international borders for profit each year.
But the IOM says there is evidence that smugglers facilitate the movement of “huge numbers” of people.
Europol, for example, estimates that 90 percent of migrants that cross Europe’s borders unlawfully do so with the help of smugglers. The figure for Chinese migrants heading to Canada is said to be similar. And about 80 percent of the up to three million people living illegally in both Malaysia and Thailand paid traffickers and other criminals to get there.
No matter how high the walls or how well armed the coastguards, people who have nothing to lose will find a way to escape unbearable situations even if it means risking their lives in dangerous journeys. – Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty
In 2016, a record 7,870 people died on their migration journeys. They included 5,100 men, women, and children who perished in the Mediterranean Sea – the world’s deadliest migration route – up from about 3,800 in 2015.
So far this year, the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project says more than 2300 people have died or vanished during migration. The Mediterranean crossing, linking the African continent with Europe, has accounted for more than 1,600 of those cases.
But the true human toll of the smuggling trade is undoubtedly higher. No one knows how many Africans have perished crossing the Sahara trying to reach Libya, a busy staging point for boat journeys to Europe.
BIG PROFITS, LOW RISK
The people smuggling trade is a high-profit, low-risk crime.
In key smuggling corridors, payments are often made via the Hawala system, an informal way of transferring money based on verbal assurance and carried out by a huge network of brokers, mainly located in Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
Put simply, it’s a way to transfer of money without actually moving it, and this verbal honour system leaves no paper trail for law enforcement authorities to follow.
But cash is used too, with Europol and other agencies pointing to large cross-border cash deliveries. Smuggling profits re-enter the legitimate economy via money laundering schemes such as real estate investment.
Investigators must also contend with uncooperative migrants, who refuse to provide intelligence about who they paid even when they’ve faced abuse during their journeys, in part because they might need their smugglers if they want to help relatives move in the future.
As regional cooperation and intelligence sharing ramps up, more smuggling kingpins are being caught. But historically, those who’ve been prosecuted for smuggling have typically been middle-men and low-level players including boat crews and truck drivers.
IF CLOSING BORDERS IS NOT THE ANSWER, WHAT IS?
In May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi issued a press statement that contained some jaw-dropping statistics. Over the course of a single weekend, on May 6 and 7, more than 6,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy. About 70 of them died.
Grandi has previously railed against efforts by governments to lock down pathways used by migrants, saying closed borders are no solution to a humanitarian problem.
Some observers say what happened in the Mediterranean on that weekend in May proves Grandi’s point.
Thousands made the crossing from northern Africa to Europe over those two days despite the European Union’s anti-smuggling naval mission, Operation Sophia, launched to fight smuggling in the Mediterranean and stop migrants from drowning.
In February, the operation’s chief Manlio Scopigno said its mandate was to identify, capture and immobilise ships carrying illegal immigrants, “not to save lives at sea”.
But in truth Operation Sophia has had more success saving lives, than fighting the smuggling trade.
Since it’s launch a little over a year and a half ago, Operation Sophia has captured 109 smugglers and traffickers, neutralised 422 boats and rescued more than 35,000 migrants at sea.
But Scopigno had another jaw dropping figure to share, estimating that the lives saved accounted for about 10 per cent of those who tried to cross the Mediterranean in the same period.
WHERE TO NEXT?
Migration experts are in universal agreement that the global community has poorly planned for and managed the inevitable mass movement of people in a world plagued by more frequent and longer lasting conflicts, oppression in all its forms, and vast economic disparity.
National leaders appear to agree, with UN member states deciding at the UN General Assembly last year to pursue new global compacts to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, save lives, share responsibility for large movements of people, and attempt to end the protracted wait for resettlement that so many refugees face.
Laczko, from the IOM, says it will be a “difficult discussion”. But he’s heartened nonethless: “At least they are starting to have this discussion.”
Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees, used last year’s vote at the UN General Assembly to remind that world there must be a shared solution to a shared problem.
“No one government can address large-scale movements of refugees on its own. International cooperation is the only way forward.”