Profile of smuggled migrants

Profile of smuggled migrants

Virtually all countries have been sources of migratory flows at certain points in time. Today, however, there are some countries or regions which experience large outflows of migrants who typically rely on the services of smugglers to reach their destination. While there are some commonalities, each smuggling flow has distinct drivers, different migrant profiles and affect specific routes and types of journeys.

Main emerging characteristics for smuggled migrants

  • While many migrants are smuggled to destinations relatively close to their origin countries, some are smuggled across regions and continents. Migrants who are smuggled through long-distance routes typically originate from the Horn of Africa and West Africa, the Syrian Arab Republic and Afghanistan, and South and East Asia.
  • Most smuggled migrants are adult males. Larger shares of females and minors are recorded for some citizenships.
  • Socio-economic conditions, insecurity and environmental disasters often drive large migration movements. The demand for migrant smuggling largely stems from limited opportunities for legal migration and proactive recruitment and misinformation by smugglers.
  • Smuggling of migrants is a deadly crime. Every year, thousands of migrants are killed as a result of smuggling activities.
  • Mass killings, systematic torture, sexual violence, exploitation and kidnapping of smuggled migrants for extortion are recorded along many of the smuggling routes.
  • Violations of migrants’ rights to protection, enshrined in the UN Smuggling of Migrants Protocol, have been recorded in some countries.

Citizenship and ethnic background

The citizenship profiles of smuggled migrants can be analysed from different perspectives. From the origin point of view, one may ask which citizens are leaving their countries in big numbers, whereas receiving countries might look at the most common citizenships among the smuggled migrants that arrive. While migrant smuggling affects most countries, some are more strongly affected than others.
Some of the main origin areas for smuggled migrants are the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Central America, some parts of the Middle East and different areas in South and East Asia. Migrants from these areas are smuggled along multiple routes to reach different destinations. These migrants share either the quest for better economic conditions, or are fleeing persecution and war, or both.

Horn of Africa and West Africa as origins

Smuggled migrants from the Horn of Africa comprise large shares of the migrants smuggled along four major routes to the Middle East, Southern Africa, North Africa and Europe.

Nearly all the arrivals by sea in Yemen in 2016 were from the Horn of Africa, and these smuggled migrants also account for a large part of those recorded in North Africa and the Middle East. Migrants and refugees smuggled to Italy from the Horn of Africa comprised about 15% of the total between 2016 and mid-2017. About 20% of the new asylum seekers in 2015 in South Africa were from this area of Africa.

Smuggled migrants from the Horn of Africa as a subregion dominate some smuggling routes. Their specific destinations, however, tend to differ according to their country of origin. Most of the migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa who are smuggled into Europe are reported by authorities at destination to come from Eritrea, and to a lesser extent from Somalia, while Somalis account for the majority of migrants smuggled to Yemen. Ethiopians are also frequently smuggled to Yemen. The smuggling flow connecting the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa includes mainly Ethiopians, and to a lesser extent Somalis.

Migrants and refugees are smuggled from many different West African countries to Europe, as well as to North and Southern Africa. Niger is a key transit country for the smuggling route from West Africa towards North Africa and Europe. In 2016, there was no dominant citizenship among smuggled migrants who transited Niger according to IOM monitoring (see Figure). While Nigerians com- prised the largest share, there were also many Nigeriens, Gambians, Senegalese and others.

Asia as origin

The impact of conflict-driven displacement on the smuggling of migrants of some citizenships can be clearly seen with regard to Syrians. In 2015, Syrians represented about half of all irregular arrivals into the European Union, most of them along the Eastern Mediterranean route. Although the numbers declined drastically in 2016 and 2017, nearly half of the migrants smuggled into Greece in these years were still Syrian refugees. Syrian citizens also represent a large majority of asylum seekers recorded in North Africa, and they undertake most of the detected irregular entries into Turkey.

Citizens of many Asian countries are smuggled to a wide range of destinations. One significant origin country is Afghanistan. Afghan citizens are smuggled along different routes in Asia, either to South and West Asia, to South- East Asia and Australia, as well as to Western and Eastern Europe. In 2015, Afghans accounted for about 20% of the migrants smuggled by sea along the three Mediterranean routes into the European Union.

A large share of Afghans heading to Europe are ethnic Hazaras, from both rural and urban areas. Many of the Afghan Hazaras were born in the Islamic Republic of Iran or arrived there very young. There are also relatively high numbers of rural Pashtuns from the southwest and west of the country.

Migrants from other South and South-West Asian countries are also smuggled along the same land routes used by Afghan migrants and refugees into West Asia, and along the Eastern Mediterranean route into Europe. In 2016 and 2017, about 10% of the recorded migrants who were smuggled along the Central Mediterranean route were citizens of countries in South Asia. Similarly, about 12% of the intercepted irregular migrants in Turkey originate from this part of the world.

South Asians are also smuggled by air across different continents, from Europe, to Southern Africa, Australia and North America. Some 700 South Asian citizens were refused entry at British airports in 2016, and several hundreds more at other major European Union airports, though it is not clear how many of them were smuggled. South Asians are also smuggled by air to North America, directly or by combining air and land passages via Central America. About one fourth of the smuggled migrants who reached Australia by sea prior to 2014 came from South Asia. This smuggling flow appears to have drastically decreased during the last few years, however.

Some South and South-West Asians are also smuggled to South Africa. More than 10,000 South Asian asylum seekers were recorded in South Africa in 2015; although it is not clear how many were smuggled. South Asians are typically smuggled overland through the United Republic of Tanzania and Mozambique. South Asian smuggled migrants are often sponsored by fellow citizens already resident in South Africa.

South-East Asia sees significant levels of intra-regional migrant smuggling, along several routes with multiple origins and destinations. One such route, or rather cluster of routes, involves smuggling of migrants within the greater Mekong area, from poorer to richer areas on opposite sides of international borders. This smuggling is generally directed to Thailand, from Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar. A similar smuggling route is directed to Malaysia; a destination for smuggled migrants seeking work in the manufacturing and domestic service industries. Many come from rural areas across Indonesia.

East Asian migrants are also smuggled to Europe, North America and South Africa, often combining air, land and / or sea passages.

Europe as destination

Shifting the perspective from origin to destination, Europe is a key destination area, attracting smuggled migrants from many countries and areas. The citizenships of migrants smuggled to Europe vary according to the smuggling route and destination country. Those who arrive in Italy by sea, via the Central Mediterranean route, are mainly from Africa (89%); mostly West Africa. An even larger share of maritime arrivals in Spain, via the Western Mediterranean route, are African (94%); again, mainly West Africans but also a sizeable share of North Africans.

Sea arrivals in Greece, through the Eastern Mediterranean route, have different citizenship profiles, however. Most of these smuggled migrants are from Afghanistan, the Syrian Arab Republic and other Middle Eastern countries (85%); reflecting the relative geographical proximity of the key origins and destinations.

North America as destination

North America – in particular, the United States of America – is another significant destination area for smuggled migrants. Most of the smuggling into the United States takes place across the country’s southern border with Mexico and primarily concerns citizens of Mexico and the Central American countries.

In addition to the smuggling by land, migrants are also smuggled into North America via air routes, sometimes in combination with overland legs. These routes can be complex and involve one or more transit countries. It is very difficult to quantify air smuggling flows. However, previous UNODC research has uncovered smuggling routes that were at least partially undertaken by air that brought migrants from a range of South and South-West Asian countries to North America, and it is likely that migrants from many other countries are smuggled along similar trajectories.

Southern Africa as destination

There is a sizeable flow of migrants and refugees who are seeking protection in Southern African countries, most notably South Africa. Most are Africans – nearly 80% – and most use smugglers for at least part of their journey. While citizens of countries in Southern Africa comprised the largest share of new applicants for asylum in South Africa in 2015, there were also large shares of applicants from other African subregions. Moreover, 21% of the new asylum applicants that year were Asians; mainly citizens of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. There are some indications that South Africa is becoming less attractive as a destination, whereas some other Southern African countries like Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Botswana might be increasingly viewed as alternative destinations.

Smuggled migrants’ sex and age

Smuggled migrants are typically young males travelling alone. Some smuggling flows include larger shares of female migrants, family units or unaccompanied migrants.

Adult men comprise a clear majority of the migrants smuggled along the Northern route from Central America to the United States. Women make up between 20-25 per cent of all detected irregular migrants along this route. Similar values are recorded in other parts of the world as well. For example, males account for 80% and adults for 83% of migrants smuggled from the Horn of Africa along the route to Yemen.

The age profile of smuggled migrants appears to vary according to the citizenship of origin, although young men are strongly represented in all areas. In Africa, most of the migrants who are smuggled from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, for example, are young men between the ages of 18 and 35. Some older migrants are recorded among Asian migrants smuggled to different parts of the world. East Asian migrants smuggled to Europe and North America are mostly male, typically adults between 20 and 50 years of age. South Asian smuggled migrants are also predominantly men, aged between 18 and 30.

In Asia, Malaysia is a destination for smuggled migrants. Most of them are male, but there are also large shares of women from neighbouring countries.

Moreover, contrary to the main patterns recorded around the world, Syrian citizens are typically smuggled in family units. This reflects the fact that many Syrians are fleeing armed conflict and want to keep the family together as they seek protection.

Afghan migrants and refugees are smuggled both as individuals and in family units. Those smuggled individually are mainly young men who intend to settle in the destination country and then facilitate the migration of other relatives, but recent sources point to an increasing number of Afghan families on the move. Single females travelling alone remain an exception among Afghan smuggled migrants.

A significant and growing number of unaccompanied minors - mostly boys - are also smuggled to Europe. In 2016, nearly 34,000 unaccompanied and separated children arrived in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain. Most of them arrived in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route, having travelled from the Horn of Africa or West Africa. Of those who arrived in Greece or Bulgaria, most were from South-West Asia. More than 35% of the total unaccompanied minors who arrived in Italy in 2015 came from the Horn of Africa. Most of these migrants tend to see Italy as a transit country on their way towards other parts of Europe, which suggests that they are likely to become involved in secondary smuggling within the European Union.

Unaccompanied minors in Europe and elsewhere tend to be boys aged between 14 and 18. Sometimes they travel to join family members already in Europe, other times they are sent ahead, as ‘pioneers’ of the family. The presence of a large number of unaccompanied minors is also recorded along the Northern route from Central America to the United States, although the trend appears to be declining, according to statistics from the United States Customs and Border Protection.


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