From Migrant Smuggling to Human Trafficking

From Migrant Smuggling to Human Trafficking

From migrant smuggling to human trafficking: assessing the undesired effects of border enforcement and Covid-19 on the professionalization of smuggling networks

This week on our blog, guest author David Leone Suber, a doctoral researcher at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, UCL, writes for PaCCS about his ongoing work. David has a background in Political Science and History of the Middle East, with a focus on violent conflict and international migration. He has worked as a researcher for various research institutions, including the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and a freelance journalist. Between 2017 and 2019, David lived in refugee camps at the Lebanese-Syrian border, working with NGOs and as a reporter an independent human rights monitor. In 2020 he was awarded a doctoral scholarship from the Economic and Social Research Council to conduct a PhD at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College London, on the adaptability of human smuggling networks.

Since the dramatic rise of irregular migration flows to Europe in 2015, migrant smuggling has become a growing problem for states wishing to both control their external borders against organised immigration crime, whilst also reducing the vulnerability of migrants and protect their human rights.

While it is safe to assume that not all land crossings are made with the aid of a smuggler, most sea crossings, whether in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea (otherwise known as the central and eastern Mediterranean routes), or across the English Channel, are facilitated by smugglers. A conservative estimate of irregular border crossings (IBCs) to Europe made by EU border agency Frontex in 2017-18 suggests that at least two-thirds of all IBCs are facilitated by smuggling organisations.[1]

The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating migrant’s reliance on smuggling networks. This came in spite of the overall decrease in the number of IBCs to Europe during 2020, a result that national governments attribute to enhanced border policing measures in key migration hotspots and the closure of borders as part of national lockdown measures.

However, in many low-income countries around the world the pandemic is dramatically worsening the already pre-existing causes of mass emigration: poverty and unemployment, climate change disasters and war. In this context, the numbers of undocumented migrants and displaced persons are predicted to rise.[2] Coupled with the strengthening of more securitized and technological borders, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers will lack better options but to rely on smuggling networks to cross international borders.

Research so far has shown that smuggling networks profiting from cross-border movement are generally small, relatively un-organised and mostly preoccupied with the cross-border element.[3] Attracted by higher profits and higher demand, organised crime and trafficking and exploitation groups could enter a widening cross-border smuggling market, increasing the vulnerability of migrants and asylum seekers.

This scenario raises policy-relevant questions when it comes to strategizing around functional and effective border controls within the EU and beyond. Is the anti-smuggling logic motivating wider border securitization an effective strategy to dismantle smuggling networks? Or is there a risk that curtailing free movement while providing no other viable alternatives will create a wider demand for smugglers?

The risk of leaving such questions unanswered carries the responsibility of mis-interpreting the consequences. Border enforcement policies only aimed at securitising borders could be creating the very enemy they are meant to eradicate, shaping the crime opportunity for more organised and professionalised smuggling networks to thrive, and widening the blurred lines between smuggling (a crime involving the irregular crossing of an international border) and trafficking (the exploitation of a person within or across countries).

In the UK, the Covid-19 effects on reducing movement of trucks and trains (the main access ways for undocumented migrants aiming to cross the channel) brought to an increase in channel crossings over small rubber dinghies. Further ahead, the effects of new border arrangements between the EU and the UK might also yield new effects on human smuggling and human trafficking practices.

This research looks at the question of smuggler’s professionalisation by bringing together an analysis of primary and secondary cross-border data on smuggling and border enforcement techniques used prior and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Fieldwork is planned to take place in key locations across the EU and its external borders, accessing and assessing law enforcement data as well as evidence and testimonies from main participants of cross-border movement. Different analytical tools and methodologies of analysis will be employed to analyse the data, including social network analysis, crime and hotspot mapping and the possibility of integrating findings through agent-based modelling of human smuggling events, assessing the relevance of risk analysis and decision-making between migrants, smugglers and borders through the modelling of agent-environment interactions.

[1] IBCs data in 2017 and 2018 shows that over 98 % of Western Mediterranean crossings can be attributed to smugglers; over 90 % of Eastern Mediterranean crossings; and all of the Central Mediterranean ones. Source: Frontex, 2019, Risk Analysis for 2019, Warsaw: Frontex, p.43. Available at:

[2] Migration Data Portal, with migration data relevant for the Covid-19 pandemic:

[3] Campana Paolo, 2020, ‘Human Smuggling: Structure and Mechanisms. Crime & Justice, Vol. 49. Available at: