This module is a resource for lecturers

Addressing demand: the role of organized criminal groups

The increasing demand for smuggling services has prompted the 'professionalization' of smuggling networks. Organized criminal groups often control and/or operate in all phases of the smuggling process. For instance, they might provide fraudulent documents to migrants, arrange transportation by air or sea, and then facilitate further movement over land (for example, by delivering means of transportation, temporary documentation, or provision of escorts). Migrant smuggling syndicates can earn extremely high profits from this criminal activity. In some instances, they benefit from weak legislation and a low risk of detection and prosecution compared to other forms of transnational organized crime (see Module 1 and Module 3 of the Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime for an overview of the activities of organized criminal groups). Organized criminal groups commonly vary routes, contacts and means of transportation to avoid detection.

Smuggling ventures may take days, weeks or many months to complete and often present serious risks to the life, safety and physical integrity of migrants. The fees for the services provided by organized criminal groups vary, but may be very high (for examples, see UNODC, Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants , 2018, page 46). The more demanding (and 'safer') the service, the higher the price will be. Sham marriages and fraudulent visas enabling entry and stay in more desirable destination countries may cost very large sums of money. Operations involving corruption of public officials or persons in positions of authority will be especially expensive. In some respects, organized criminal groups operating migrant smuggling services offer a type of illicit 'travel agency'. That is, they organize trips from the country where migrants are, to their desired destination country. The level, quality and quantity of services will be proportional to the cost. Importantly, though, the services provided and the result envisaged by these 'agencies' are fully or in part illegal. Usually, the activities of smugglers are criminal notwithstanding the ultimate success of smuggling ventures (see Module 1).

Box 7

Services by organized criminal groups

  • Transportation by land, sea, and air
  • Accommodation
  • Fraudulent documents (e.g. passports, visas, work permits)
  • Abuse of legal channels of migration (e.g. sham marriages, false adoptions)
  • Escorts
  • Coaching for questioning by authorities
  • Logistical support (e.g. clothing, nourishment)
  • Employment (black market)
Box 8

EU migration crisis: some facts on organized criminal groups' modus operandi

  • Throughout 2016, the two main entry corridors - the Eastern and Central Mediterranean Sea routes - witnessed significant smuggling activities. Migration from North Africa to Europe, in particular, increased in 2016 compared to the previous year.
  • Organized criminal groups focused equally on providing facilitation services for irregular migrants stranded in Europe and along the migration routes.
  • Unseaworthy vessels, as well as decommissioned fishing and leisure boats, were the primary migration means used to reach Europe by sea.
  • Lorries and trucks were widely used to cross land borders as part of onward secondary movements. The highly dangerous method of concealing migrants in purpose-built compartments also re-emerged (See also Leutert, Yates, 2017).
  • Facilitation by train and air was increasingly reported; this displacement is believed to be the consequence of the additional controls implemented on land and sea routes.
  • An increase in the supply of false documents to irregular migrants was reported; this takes place equally in the countries of origin, migration hotspots and en route.
Europol, European Migrant Smuggling Centre, First Year Activity Report, February 2017
Box 9

The TEDx Talk Why Migrant Smuggling Pays (approx. 15 minutes) elaborates on the economic motivations of those involved in migrant smuggling and the related massive and complex underpinning industry that has developed around it.

The key points highlighted in this TEDx Talk are:

Migrant smuggling is one of the most serious contemporary threats. It:

  • Results in the killing of thousands of people around the world.
  • Culminates in the exploitation of significant percentages of migrants following the smuggling venture, which might in some cases amount to trafficking in persons.
  • Undermines national security and sovereignty insofar as it might be linked with other crimes, such as drug trafficking.
  • Increases xenophobia and discrimination due to significant increases in arrivals of individuals not fulfilling legal requirements for entry.

Migrant smuggling resembles a business, the process and structure of which has evolved in accordance with customers' needs and demands.

Every person in the smuggling process or benefiting from it has an interest in the smuggling venture being successful. The critical consideration is the direct or indirect gain made:

  • Migrants wish to improve their living conditions. They must repay debts incurred to afford the fees of the smuggling venture. In addition, social and cultural roles determine their contribution to the income of families in their home countries.
  • Smugglers aim to maintain the reputation of their enterprises. They are aware that if migrants do not arrive in the country of destination they will not be paid. Smuggling agreements often operate based on money back guarantees. An unsuccessful operation means that all the investment made thus far in the planning will be lost (e.g. passport, visa, bribery of officials). To minimize eventual losses, smugglers organize operations en masse, to create economies of scale.
  • Employers can reduce costs considerably by employing irregular migrants to whom they pay lower salaries and for whom they make no contributions to social security.
  • Final consumers are glad to pay less for the final product, even though they might not immediately realize or admit the indirect gain made through the exploitation of another individual.
Next: Humanitarianism, security and migrant smuggling
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