Unveiling the mechanisms of migrant smuggling: Insights into transportation and facilitation strategies

Article by UCSC-Transcrime

Migrant smuggling is the process of facilitating the unlawful entry, transit or residence of an individual in a country.[1] It is a market in which the commodity traded is the assisted illegal entry into a country for a profit.[2] Migrants constitute the demand-side of the market as they are willing to buy a service, that is the illegal entry into a country, for reasons that include leaving war zones, extreme poverty, economic hardship, or persecution.[3] The demand is satisfied by several sellers, namely the smugglers, who provide these services for a wide array of reasons, ranging from economic returns to assistance to individuals with similar social and cultural backgrounds.

Migrant smugglers rely on a variety of means of transport to facilitate irregular migration both into and within the EU. Migrant smugglers’ modi operandi depend on several factors, such as the origin of the smugglers, the type of travel used, the route and the price that the migrant is willing to pay for the journey.[4]

Most irregular migrants in the EU arrive via Mediterranean Sea routes, using several types of boats. The choice of boat depends on the migrants’ budget and the length of the journey. Options include speedboats, sailing boats, motor yachts, and small inflatable rubber boats. Smuggling organizations even construct their own boats. However, sailing yachts and speedboats are less common due to the high costs and risks involved if these boats are damaged or seized. Instead, stolen boats are frequently used to reduce costs and make it harder for law enforcement to identify the smuggling network. Various methods have been identified for transporting migrants. One typical approach involves using two vessels: a larger one like a fishing trawler or cargo ship to take migrants on open ocean voyages, then transferring them to a smaller boat for the final leg to the landing site. The boat crew and smugglers abandon the migrants, providing basic instructions for navigating the small boat, and return to shore in the second vessel. Another technique, known as the “mother ship technique,” is commonly observed between Egypt and Italy. It involves using fisher boats, often owned by recruited professional fishermen, to transport migrants in international waters. The migrants are then transferred to smaller vessels and left adrift to be intercepted by Italian authorities, while the fishermen return to the departure coast.[5]

Overland transportation is the second most common method used by irregular migrants. It serves as a means to reach departure points and for secondary movements during longer journeys after utilizing other transportation options.[6] Various vehicles, such as cars, buses, lorries, and trains, are commonly employed depending on the specific route. Migrants transported overland, including for secondary movements, are often confined in dark and airtight cargo compartments, exposing them to life-threatening conditions. Smugglers frequently use rented vehicles or vehicles with fake license plates to hinder traceability if intercepted by law enforcement. It is worth noting that migrants can also be smuggled unknowingly in vehicles, such as when smugglers target commercial trucks waiting at border crossings, cut the seals and let the migrants in[7]. Lastly, overland transportation can involve migrants simply walking to cross borders, forming what is known as “caravans of hope.” These large groups of migrants aim to cross the EU’s external borders in search of protection, companionship, and to convey a unified visual message to national governments.

Air facilitation to or within the EU is infrequent but may become more prominent due to heightened controls on land and sea routes. [8] Air smuggling offers increased safety, speed, and lower risks for smugglers. Typically, smugglers do not accompany migrants but instead coordinate their journeys remotely from the origin or a third country, using messaging apps or other channels. Major international airports are prime targets for air smuggling as they connect to various parts of the world through major airlines. Migrant smuggling by air often complements other forms of travel as part of a larger facilitation plan. Migrants initially fly to a neighbouring third country and subsequently attempt to illegally enter the EU by land or sea.[9]

Two main methods of air migrant smuggling in the EU have been detected. Firstly, irregular migrants may use EU airports as transit points to third-party countries, as transit visas are often not required for many nationalities. They book flights that pass-through EU airports but intentionally stay in the country instead of continuing their journey. Upon arrival, they destroy their original documents (e.g., passports, visas), purposely miss their connecting flights, and apply for asylum in the EU country. In other cases, smugglers instruct migrants to meet a member of the criminal organization in the international lounge of the transit airport, where they receive new (often forged) documents. After the meeting, migrants attempt to leave the EU airport. Another common method involves trying to directly enter an EU member state using fraudulent documents. Document fraud plays a significant role in irregular air entry into the EU, especially by air.

[1] Europol, European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2021.

[2] Veronica Bilger, Martin Hofmann, and Michael Jandl, “Human Smuggling as a Transnational Service Industry: Evidence from Austria,” International Migration 44, no. 4 (2006); Paolo Campana and Federico Varese, “Exploitation in Human Trafficking and Smuggling,” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 22 (2016): 89–105.

[3] Georgios A. Antonopoulos and John Winterdyk, “The Smuggling of Migrants in Greece: An Examination of Its Social Organization,” European Journal of Criminology 3, no. 4 (October 2006): 439–61.

[4] Luigi Achilli, “Irregular Migration to EU and Human Smuggling in the Mediterranean: The Nexus between Organized Crime and Irregular Migration, Mobility and Refugee Crisis in the Mediterranean,” IEMED POLICY Brief, 2016; Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano, Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour (London: Hurst & Company, 2016).

[5] European Commission, “A Study on Smuggling of Migrants. Characteristics, Responses and Cooperation with Third Countries,” 2015.

[6] Europol and Interpol, “Migrants Smuggling Networks. Joint Europol-Interpol Report,” 2016.

[7] European Commission, “A Study on Smuggling of Migrants. Characteristics, Responses and Cooperation with Third Countries.”

[8] Europol, European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2021.

[9] UNODC, “Migrant Smuggling by Air,” Issue Paper, 2010.

The API/PNR state of play and challenges in Europe

Exploiting travel intelligence for security brings a broad range of different professional disciplines closer together, transferring knowledge between many competences: Border control including Entry Exit System (EES), European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) & Advance Passenger Information (API); Visa/migration authorities; Police cooperation; Counterterrorism/Internal Security; Criminal investigation, Passenger Information Units (PIUs); Customs; Carriers and airlines; law enforcement officials, etc., to meet the challenges of the dynamic threat environment. This large scale of actors dictates common tools and approaches. TENACITy works beyond the current state of play, to propose an open architecture, applicable at European level. TENACITy’s vision of strengthening security authority’s role in fighting serious cross-border crimes, amongst others, is to provide for modern and effective tools for exploitation of travel intelligence data by security authorities and to implement and demonstrate a Travel Intelligence Governance Framework that will incorporate a holistic approach to crime prevention.

As a first step, in the context of the TENACITy project, it was considered as necessary to have an in-depth analysis of the current state of play of the processing of PNR and API data in European countries. In this respect, KEMEA prepared and distributed to Passenger Information Units (PIUs) a survey to gather necessary input from PIUs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the existing state-of-play of the technical, and other, capacities of PIUs on the usage of API/PNR data). More specifically, the survey aimed at the identification of i) the level of the implementation of the technical solutions to process PNR and API data, ii) the technical solution developed and iii) the user and system requirements and challenges faced by PIUs.

Twelve EU Member States and two non-EU countries replied to the survey. The majority of the PIUs confirmed that they have an up and running system to process PNR data and API data and highlighted that the existing technological solution covers a big part of their operational needs. In particular, some stressed the usefulness of the historical searches on a case-by-case basis or by comparing PNR data against relevant databases or by processing those against pre-determined criteria in order to identify the yet – unknown criminals.

As for the challenges identified, those vary. In relation to the exchange of PNR data, some mentioned that the exchange of PNR data is not standardised and some PIUs are not using the agreed PIU-PIU template. Most of them highlighted that the data quality is rather poor in order to perform quick and efficient analysis of the data, with an emphasis given at the ‘broken travels’. As a result, they mentioned a number of data that they would wish to become mandatory for the air carriers to collect (for e.g., the date of birth of the passenger was something highlighted). Additionally, some PIUs are already processing PNR data from air carriers that do not support automated transmission yet confirmed that there are limited datasets available to compare those data with. Similarly, the same challenge appears to those who collect PNR data from other modes of transport.   Overall, all the PIUs, that participated to the survey, have well set up their systems and other non-technological challenges, like the non-standardised process of exchanging PNR data or the quality of the data are more important. In those challenges, the legal obstacles and the financial challenges shall be added. Many of these challenges can be solved and need to be solved at a legal level. However, the participants have recognised that tools and technological solutions with many automations are needed as they can also solve a part of their operational problems

TENACITy participated to Project to Policy Seminar

The Projects to Policy Seminar, which took place in Brussels on June 14 and 15, 2023, was a highly successful event that brought together newly launched projects and policy DGs. Coordinated by DG HOME and REA, this seminar served as a valuable platform for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Its primary objective was to establish a strong connection between research initiatives and policy priorities by facilitating engagement and alignment. To achieve this, participants were organized into four distinct thematic areas, ensuring focused discussions and maximizing the seminar’s overall impact. The four thematic areas where:

  • Fighting crime and terrorism & Infrastructure (FCT/INFRA)
  • Strengthened Security Research and Innovation (SSRI)
  • Disaster-resilient societies (DRS),
  • Border management (BM)

The TENACITy team was enthusiastic about showcasing their advancements, exchanging knowledge, and receiving valuable advice from policy experts during the plenary sessions and focused discussions held within the seminar.

TENACITy Project Unites at DEFEA-Defence Exhibition in Athens

The TENACITy project was presented to visitors of the DEFEA-Defence Exhibition in Athens by the Centre for Security Studies (KEMEA) of the Hellenic Ministry of Citizen Protection who participated as an exhibitor. The TENACITy coordination team visiting the exhibition did not miss the opportunity to drop by KEMEA’s stand to say hello! 

End-users requirements Workshop

The End-users Requirements Worskhop followed the consortium’s Plenary Meeting and took place on February 1st, 2023, at the American University of Cyprus in Larnaca. The purpose of this workshop was to collect end-user requirements and advance the use case definition process. There was an information sharing session and a discussion about the tools that where proposed by TENACITy to be developed for usage in the field of travel intelligence and purposed for fighting against crime and terrorism. The participants also had the chance to work together on a number of scenarios based on the TENACITy Proposal.

Cyprus Plenary Meeting

The TENACITy Plenary Meeting was held in Cyprus, on January 30 and 31, 2023. During the two day meeting the TENACITy consortium had the chance to meet in-person to discuss the progress that was achieved in the last six months of the TENACITy project and which WPs have begun and which milestones have already been reached. The partners gave an overview of the WPs they are responsible for and the relevant tasks on work package level.
The final part of the Plenary Meeting was an open discussion, mainly for the technology providers to discuss tool synergies and the architecture of the tools that will be developed.

Kick Off Meeting

The TENACITy Kick-off Meeting was held in Athens, Greece on September 21 and 22, 2022. The partners have presented their vision and plans, the project’s top priorities, and the action items for the first months of the project.

The work that needed to be done and the responsibilities of each partner were presented and discussed during the two-day meeting on a work package level. This included identifying the major problems that have to be solved on each work package as well as the measurable results and KPIs that needed to be met in accordance with the project’s Description of Action. The consortium members also participated in a number of roundtable talks on the important technologies and techniques that should be used, as well as the crucial tasks during the project’s implementation phase and execution. A comprehensive dedicated session on the project’s ethics requirements was also planned and held.

Project Start

TENNACITy project has been chosen to receive funding from EU under the call: Fighting Crime and Terrorism 2021 (HORIZON-CL3-2021-FCT-01)

The TENACITy project started at 1 September 2022 with a duration of 36 months (end: August 2025) by a competitive consortium of 17 partners from 10 countries.

The project’s full name is “Travelling Intelligence Against Crime and Terrorism”.

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101074048