What does smuggling require

What does smuggling require

Territorial control and the trust of migrants

The control of territory is an important factor for success in the smuggling business. The citizenship profiles of smugglers show that most of the smugglers who operate at borders are normally citizens of the country of departure. Smugglers active at departure points for sea smuggling are typically citizens of the countries where these ports are located.

Most of the overland legs along some African routes are facilitated by smugglers who are citizens of the countries where they operate. Once the route takes migrants across different jurisdictions, operations are transferred to smugglers who have territorial control of the area they are crossing. In Eastern Sudan, for example, the Rashaida tribe appears to be involved in the smuggling of migrants of any nationality crossing the territory that they control.

Other groups, often nomadic, control smuggling passages in other parts of Africa that they have historically dominated. Similar patterns can also be seen elsewhere, for example, in different border passages in the Americas, or in the area between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran where smugglers often have strong ethnolinguistic ties with local communities and originate from the border regions.

When it comes to smugglers in intermediary or coordinating roles, their work is not so strongly connected to the territory, but to the smuggled migrants. In Libya, for example, the smugglers who arrange the boat travel along the Central Mediterranean route are usually Libyans. But smuggler ‘brokers’ from different African countries are often involved in organising the travel – in Libya, work- ing with Libyan smugglers - for their fellow citizens want- ing to be smuggled to Europe.

The role of migrant diasporas in smuggling is evident along many routes. For example, Somali neighbourhoods in some major African capitals serve as main smuggling hubs along the routes from the Horn of Africa to Europe, and various South and South-West Asian communities function similarly for some of the key smuggling routes to West Asia and Europe.

The role of ethnolinguistic affinities between migrants and smugglers and smuggling ‘brokers’ could be linked to ‘the human factor’ and the importance of trust for successful smuggling ventures. Migrants may find it easier to trust people from the same community to pay often hefty fees and embark on an unknown venture.

Trust is also the key reason why along different routes, smugglers working as intermediaries are often friends, relatives, community members or returnees who are well- reputed in the communities of origin. In some cases, smugglers are not only reported to be respected figures locally, but they may also live among their clientele and promote their record of managing successful smuggling operations.

The role of information in the smuggling business

Information is key to the smuggling business. On the one hand, misinformation provided to migrants increases the demand for smuggling services. Information given by smugglers to migrants is often unrealistically optimistic regarding the outcome of their smuggling operations. In some circumstances, migrants may buy services that they would not have bought had they had the right information on the risks of the journey and circumstances in destination countries.

On the other hand, accurate knowledge about the most successful ways to access destination countries is the cornerstone of smuggling operations. Smugglers are usually not only informed about geography and possible land, sea or air passages, but also about national legislation, visa regimes, migration policies, border control, enforcement efforts and other aspects that can be leveraged in order to make profits. For instance, smugglers are aware that along certain routes, claiming specific citizenships increase the likelihood for migrants to get access to or protection in their desired country of destination.

In cases where migrants – smuggled or not - are apprehended during irregular border crossings, the response of the authorities often depends on the citizenship of migrants. Some citizenships are immediately returned, some may be easily considered for refugee status, while others may not be subject to immediate expulsion due to the lack of bilateral agreements with origin countries and are likely to be left free to move within the destination country. On some sea passages, smugglers may provide phone numbers of national authorities so that migrants can call them to be rescued, if being apprehended is one of the strategies to maximise the likelihood for the migrant to be able to stay in the destination country.

The smugglers’ ability to access and use information is crucial when it comes to smuggling by air. As they are aware of visa restrictions and policies in different countries, smugglers often make use of transit airports of convenience. They select transit airports depending on the final destination and migrants’ citizenships. Smugglers then organise for migrants to fly to a transit airport, and from there onwards to a final destination. The first point of transit may involve a regular crossing, and it is only with the second flight that the migration may become irregular. In such a scheme, legitimate travel documents are used for the first leg of the journey, while a falsified or fraudulently obtained visa is used for the second leg, in the hope that security is less strict because the flight arrives from a trusted origin. Alternatively, the migrant might be asked to destroy the travel documents and deliberately miss the onward flight to the stated destination. At the transit airport, the migrant then meets with a member of the smuggling network in the international lounge. Falsified or fraudulently obtained documents as well as a new ticket and boarding pass are then provided for the onward travel to the intended destination.

Smugglers may also select arrival airports not only on the basis of visa requirements, but also considering the proximity to the migrant’s desired destination. From these airports, they smuggle migrants along land or sea routes to their final destination.

Corruption and fraudulent travel documentation

Some forms of migrant smuggling are carried out by involving local officers to grant safe passage and impunity. Corruption is a common method used to smuggle migrants across an international border. Corrupt practices have been reported along nearly all smuggling routes considered in this study. Whether these practices involve small amounts of cash paid directly to border guards or larger amounts for higher-ranking officers in the diplomatic corps depends on the resources available and the smugglers’ capacity to reach out to officers in different institutions.
Along most African routes, it appears that those passing through official border posts often need to pay a bribe to border guards, even if travel documents are exhibited. Similar practices have been reported along Central American routes towards North America, in the European Union and in some parts of Asia. At airports, immigration officers or airline staff may be paid to close their eyes while inspecting travel documents.

At more senior levels, smuggling could involve visa-issuing authorities and immigration directors who engage in corrupt practices. The replacement of a bio-data page in a passport, for instance, requires the assistance of someone with access to official procedures and equipment. Perhaps more frequently, however, corruption comes into play for the issuance of genuine documents without satisfying the legal requirements, or on fraudulent grounds. Smugglers may obtain a falsified birth certificate, for instance, which can then be used to obtain a ‘genuine’ passport.

Some smuggling networks are particularly sophisticated and creative in their efforts to obtain regular visas through fraudulent means. This can include the creation of fictitious companies and phantom branches in destination countries, arrangement of sham conferences or dance groups, or creation of fake bank accounts to demonstrate the financial means required to obtain a legitimate visa. In these cases, visa applications may be supported by other counterfeit documents including flight tickets, boarding passes, residence permits, birth certificates, sponsorship letters or other documents to show that the identity of the visa applicant is identical to the one in their passport. The organization of sham marriages to grant some- one legal access on fraudulent premises has also been reported. For smuggling purposes, travel documents such as passports and visas have been counterfeited, falsified, stolen, obtained by fraud or corruption, used by someone other than the rightful owner, or even created from scratch out of fantasy.


If smugglers cannot access authorities or travel documents, they may sell dangerous passages which often involve sea crossings. One of the risks faced by migrants who are smuggled along maritime routes is connected to some smugglers’ practice of sabotaging migrant vessels to force rescue at sea. Rescuing people in distress at sea is an obligation under the international law of the sea. Smugglers sometimes take advantage of this basic humanitarian and legal principle by exposing migrants to the imminent risk of drowning. Migrants smuggled on board boats may be given a satellite phone to call coast guards for help. The plan is that migrants provide coast guards with information about their location, so that the migrants can be located, approached and rescued. The migrants should then be transported to the closest safe harbour, which is normally the planned destination.

This strategy is very risky and not always successful. Migrants may not be able to state their exact location in a timely manner. Moreover, moving hundreds of panicking people from a sinking vessel to a coast guard boat is a difficult task. Weather is another crucial factor in these circumstances. From the smugglers’ point of view, this method offers a key advantage: they avoid the risk of arrest by authorities in countries of destination. Along the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes, the boat driver is often a migrant - usually chosen some time before departure - who may have been offered to travel for free.

This smuggling technique implies the likely loss of the vessel. The boats usually sink or are seized by authorities in destination countries. This is often not the case for smuggling across the Red or Arabian seas, where the risk of being arrested at destination is limited, and the scarcity of resources compels smugglers to use the same vessels for several journeys.

Certain sea routes require more sophisticated planning and organising, and thus greater capacity within the smuggling network. To cover longer distances, smugglers may use the so-called ‘mother ship’ strategy. On departure, migrants are stowed in a large ‘mother ship’, which may make several stops en route to collect more passengers. Close to the destination shore, migrants are transferred to smaller boats while the ‘mother ship’ returns to port.

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

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