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.

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