Measuring an illegal phenomenon is always a difficult exercise. National authorities normally record only those criminal events that come to the attention of the criminal justice system. Social research methods, such as population surveys, can be used to measure certain criminal activities beyond what is officially detected.
For the offence of migrant smuggling, national authorities may record the number and profile of offenders (smugglers) but do not generally record the number of migrants smuggled. In relation to migrants, official statistics normally record clandestine and irregular entries officially detected at borders or inland. But these data usually do not specify how many of the irregular entries were facilitated by a smuggler.
The numbers of irregular entries officially recorded, how- ever, can serve as a proxy for the number of smuggled migrants if there is evidence that the vast majority of those crossing the border irregularly make use of smuggling services and are detected by the authorities. This is the case for some smuggled migrants along certain routes, but not always.
On certain routes, smuggled migrants try to avoid detection and are not counted in the official records of irregular entries. In other cases, official records of irregular entries may include migrants that did not make use of smuggler services to cross the borders.
Some circumstances help to understand if certain indicators can be used as a proxy to estimate the number of smuggled migrants. Irregular entries related to journeys that are long or dangerous such as sea crossings or involve harsh environmental conditions such as deserts or mountains are likely to approximate the number of smuggled migrants, as these crossing require specialised services. The use of fraudulent travel documents in border crossings is an indicator that migrants have used smuggling services. Also, in some cases corruption could be used as an indicator of smuggling when it is large-scale and involves senior officials.
In general, there is no single source that can determine the scale of migrant smuggling. It can only be assessed by triangulating different available information. Smuggling of migrants is also very dynamic and at a certain point in time it is only possible to depict a snapshot of the smuggling situation in that specific period.
There is no general rule as to what information to use to estimate the magnitude of the migrant smuggling crime. Each route can be assessed based on the information avail- able, and the type of smuggling operations being carried out along the route. Given the current status of knowledge, for many of the known smuggling routes, it is simply not possible to generate a reliable estimate of the magnitude of the smuggling activity.
Detections of illegal border crossings* along the three Mediterranean routes, 2009-2016
Smuggling of migrants into Europe
Officially detected illegal border crossings is a good proxy indicator to estimate the size of the Mediterranean flows because irregular border crossings by sea are likely to require facilitation by smugglers.
In 2015, an exceptionally large number of smuggled migrants – more than 880,000 - were recorded along the Eastern Mediterranean route. In 2016, about 180,000 entries were recorded along this route. The numbers recorded along the Central Mediterranean route ranged between 154,000 and 182,000 for the 2014-2016 period.
Arrivals along the Western Mediterranean route to Spain, including those directed to the Canary Islands, have ranged between 5,000 and 10,000 migrants and refugees per year since the beginning of this decade.
Overall, it appears that about 370,000 migrants were smuggled by sea into the European Union in 2016. Based on these figures, a conservative estimate of the smuggling business along the three smuggling routes for the year 2016 ranges between US$320 million and US$550 million.
It is more difficult to assess the magnitude of migrant smuggling along the EU land borders. The number of detections of irregular entries is very low (1,350 detected in 2016 through the EU Eastern borders), which would seem to indicate that these smuggling flows are limited, compared to the sea smuggling routes. However, it appears that smuggled migrants making use of these land routes avoid detection, and thus these figures only represent a small share of the number of migrants smuggled into the EU across these borders. In addition, it is unclear how many of these irregular entries are facilitated by smugglers. Similar considerations are to be made regarding smuggling into the European Union from the countries of the Western Balkans. In 2016, about 10,000 citizens of countries in the Western Balkans were detected crossing European Union borders irregularly, and in this case, it is not possible to estimate how many passed through and avoided detection, and how many were smuggled.
Migrants are also smuggled to major airports in Europe using fraudulent documents. While this method does require smuggler activity, many migrants who are smuggled are probably going undetected. About 4,400 people were detected at EU airports with false travel documents in 2016. It is not possible to estimate how many others managed to cross the border and avoid detection, and thus, how large the total smuggling business behind this smuggling flow is.
Smuggling of migrants across African borders
Many of those smuggled along the Central and Western Mediterranean routes into the European Union were first smuggled into North Africa from other parts of the African continent. In this regard, the two most relevant smuggling routes are those from the Horn of Africa and from West Africa to North Africa. Not all migrants arriving in North Africa continue their journey to Europe; on the contrary, many remain in North Africa.
Various estimates for the years 2014 and 2015 suggest that the number of migrants smuggled within the Horn of Africa, and from there to Sudan, may be more than 100,000 per year. It is unclear how many of them continue their journey to Libya or Egypt. In 2014 and in 2015, the number of migrants and refugees that arrived in Europe from the Horn of Africa ranged between 40,000 and 50,000 per year. Therefore, it appears that a large segment of those moving from the Horn of Africa may settle for some time along the route or in North Africa.
The smuggling flow along this route seems to have decreased drastically due to increasing obstacles and unrest along key passages. The number of migrants passing from Sudan to Libya through the southern border district of Kufra (Libya), seems to have decreased from 10,000-12,000 per month to a few hundred per month since 2013. Recent European figures confirm the reduction. The number of smuggled migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa and Sudan arriving in Europe has decreased from above 60,000 in 2015, to 37,500 in 2016 and less than 10,000 recorded in the first half of 2017.
Depending on the point of departure, citizenship and smuggling method, smuggling fees to reach different parts of the Horn of Africa and from here to Sudan, reportedly range between US$200 to a few thousands. Smuggling fees to cover the journey from Khartoum to Libya or Egypt range around US$1,500. Smuggling income for smuggling within the Horn of Africa, and from there to North Africa could range between US$300 million and 500 million per year.
As for the land routes from West Africa to North Africa, according to field studies, in 2016, more than 330,000 individuals transited through Niger. In 2016, IOM started tracking the movement of irregular migrants in Mali. This data suggests that about 4,000 migrants were smuggled out of Mali to North Africa every month in 2016, or 48,000 per year if the rate was constant. These numbers suggest that in 2016 the number of migrants smuggled from West Africa to North Africa might have been around 380,000.
Some West African migrants settle in North Africa, while others continue to Europe. According to official statistics, the number of West African migrants who reached Italy via the Central Mediterranean route was 100,000 in 2016. A few thousand reached Spain along the Western Mediterranean route. Thus, as for the smuggling flow from the Horn of Africa, a large share of those leaving West Africa remain in North Africa (around 280,000 in 2016), at least for some time.
Smuggling fees change according to the final destination in North Africa. The cost for crossing into Libya from Niger ranges around US$200-300. However, to reach the North African coasts from West Africa migrants typically pay US$2,000-3,000. Assuming that these figures are accurate, migrant smuggling from West Africa to North Africa could generate between US$760 million and 1.1 billion per year.
The flows towards Southern Africa – primarily South Africa - are complex and particularly difficult to estimate. These flows include some migrants who have certainly been smuggled from the Horn of Africa (reportedly in the range of some 15,000 per year) and from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. As for the other African routes, a number of migrants who have been smuggled from the Horn of Africa towards South Africa may settle in transit countries. As a consequence, smuggled migrants recorded in South Africa represent only a portion of those moving from the Horn of Africa. Smuggling fees for land routes from the Horn of Africa to South Africa range around US$3,000. Some migrants are also smuggled by air, which usually involves higher fees. Based on these estimates, the income from smuggling of migrants into South Africa would range around US$45 million.
Smuggling flows from other African countries are also directed to South Africa. The number of irregular migrants from countries in Central and other Southern African countries could range around 15,000 per year. However, a number of migrants arriving in South Africa may not apply for asylum, and migrants with certain citizenships may not be smuggled, especially those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fees paid to smugglers for simply crossing the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa for citizens of neighbouring countries are around US$50.211 Overall, smuggling flows from these other African countries may produce revenues of about US$ 500,000 per year.
Another significant smuggling route runs from the Horn of Africa to Yemen by sea. Based on a large number of field interviews, RMMS estimated a conservative figure of 275,338 migrants smuggled between 2011 and 2013 along this route. This would account for nearly 100,000 migrants smuggled per year. The same study estimated that 73% were smuggled across the Red Sea, and the remaining 27% across the Arabian Sea. In 2016, RMMS recorded 117,107 migrant and refugee arrivals in Yemen along this route, confirming the scale of this smuggling flow.
The smuggling fees to cross the Arabian Sea range around US$130-150 per person, whereas the Red Sea crossing costs between US$60-200. On the basis of these figures, the sea crossing from the Horn of Africa to Yemen may generate fees ranging between US$9-22 million per year.
Smuggling of migrants to North America
As for most other parts of the world, there is no official data concerning migrant smuggling along the northward route from Central America to Mexico and the United States of America.
Based on apprehension statistics and qualitative information, some recent studies have estimated that about 392,000 Central American migrants were smuggled to Mexico and onwards to the United States in 2014, and 377,000 in 2015. Only 11% managed to reach their final destination in the United States, while most (56%) were intercepted and recorded by United States border authorities, and 33% were detected and recorded by the Mexican authorities. The number of smuggled Central American migrants seems to have increased over the last few years; reaching a peak in 2014.
This trend is to some extent reflected in official statistics from the United States, as well as from Mexican data. In Mexico, the total number of detections involving Central American migrants increased from 61,000 in 2010 to 132,000 in 2015 and 151,000 in 2016. In 2016, the number of Central Americans decreased, and at the same time, the number of detected migrants from Caribbean countries increased.
Studies indicate that the smuggling fees from Central America to the United States are approximately US$7,000 per person. As a consequence, the business around the smuggling of Central American migrants to Mexico and from there to the United States, may range around US$2 billion per year.
To generate a rough estimate of the number of Mexican citizens smuggled into the United States across the land border, the detection rate calculated for Central Americans intercepted by United States law enforcement authorities can be applied to Mexican migrants attempting to cross the same border. There is no reason to believe that Mexicans are more or less likely to be detected than Central American irregular migrants. Using this approach, it is estimated that about 376,000 (2014) and 300,000 (2015) Mexican migrants were smuggled or attempted to be smuggled into the United States. Considering that they all paid a smuggling fee of around US$5,000, the smuggling activity would generate incomes ranging around US$ 1.9 billion per year during these two years.
Other smuggled migrants are also detected at the southern land border of the United States. Applying the same detection rate used for Central Americans, it appears that about 14,000-18,000 migrants from the Caribbean were smuggled into Mexico and, from there, were smuggled or attempted to be smuggled to the United States every year (in the years 2014 and 2015). The revenues from this smuggling activity could range around US$ 100 million to 120 million per year.z
In addition, it is estimated that some 20,000 migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East were smuggled into Mexico and, from there, were smuggled or attempted to be smuggled to the United States every year from the southern border (in the years 2014 and 2015). The estimated income generated from this smuggling activity could range around US$300 million per year. For the same years, it could be estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 South American migrants were smuggled annually into Mexico and, from there, attempted to be smuggled to the United States across the southern border. This flow may generate revenues of about US$105 million and 140 million per year.
Including all the routes described above, smuggling into Mexico and the United States of America involve more than 800,000 smuggled migrants per year, with a business that – according to these conservative estimates - is estimated at around US$4 billion per year.
Smuggling of migrants within and out of Asia
Estimates on the magnitude of migrant smuggling from the countries in the Mekong subregion to Thailand were produced by UNODC in 2013, in reference to the year 2010. According to these estimates, more than 660,000 irregular migrants enter Thailand each year from neighbouring countries and, based on field research, more than 80% of them use the assistance of smugglers. This indicates that about 550,000 migrants are smuggled from these countries into Thailand each year. Different migrants typically pay different smuggling fees and, based on the same study, in 2010, about US$192 million was generated by migrant smuggling from these three countries into Thailand.
Another lucrative smuggling route leads migrants and refugees from South-West Asia to Turkey. Some of these migrants continue their journey towards Western Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean route and some settle in Turkey. The route is used to smuggle South-West Asians, mainly migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to a lesser extent Iraq. Some are already part of the total estimated number of migrants smuggled into Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean route. However, the smuggling fees for the legs of the journey from origin countries to Turkey were not considered so a separate estimation is needed to under- stand the total value of the smuggling business in the region.
Among those who arrived in Greece from Turkey in 2016, more than 44,000 were Afghan citizens. According to field surveys,221 it appears that the vast majority of Afghans smuggled into Europe are smuggled along the route into Turkey all the way from Afghanistan and to a lesser extent from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Considering that about 1% of Afghans who arrived in Greece had been living in Turkey it is reasonable to estimate that about 43,500 Afghans were smuggled into Turkey en route to Greece in 2016.
Those who reached Turkey but did not manage to continue to Greece should also be added to these numbers. These could be estimated at least in the range of 36,000 for the year 2016. Adding up those who were registered in Greece and those registered in Turkey, at least 80,000 Afghans were smuggled into Turkey in 2016. This is a conservative estimate as it is likely that some Afghan migrants and refugees may have decided not to apply for asylum in one of these two countries.
Considering the most conservative figures, the fee for the whole land journey from Afghanistan to Turkey ranges around US$ 2,500.ad Similar fees can be assumed for the (at least) 13,700 Pakistani migrants who followed the same smuggling route. According to the available literature, irregular migrants and refugees from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq are likely to recruit a smuggler to enter Turkey. It is estimated that at least 52,500 Iraqis and 16,200 Iranians were smuggled to Turkey in 2016; some to stay there, some to move to Europe. It is conservatively estimated that, in 2016 about 162,000 migrants and refugees were smuggled along the South-West Asian land route to Turkey. This smuggling activity generated fees of, at least, US$300 million.
IMAGE CREDIT: EUROPOL