Profile of people smugglers

Profile of people smugglers

Main emerging characteristics for smugglers

The profiles of smugglers vary. In some cases, smuggling involves unconnected or loosely connected individuals who profit modestly from smuggling services. The livelihood of these individuals may depend on the smuggling market that exists in their communities. In other cases, smuggling is carried out by members of sophisticated and often unscrupulous organisations which may make large profits from the smuggling, and/or from the extortion and exploitation of migrants.

  • Smugglers recruit and publicise their services. Smuggling fees and services fluctuate according to, inter alia, the safety of the smuggling methods, the distance involved, the difficulty of border crossings and the perceived wealth of migrants.
  • Attracting and selling smuggling services require building trust with migrants. Therefore, smugglers particularly those in intermediary or recruiting roles - often have the same citizenship as the migrants they smuggle.
  • Smuggling is often easier if the smugglers control the territory where they operate. As a consequence, smugglers who are active at a particular border crossing are normally from that territory.
  • Smuggling methods range from more creative, sophisticated, safe and expensive to cheap, dangerous and simple ways to attempt entry in destination countries.
  • Smuggling can be carried out by full-time ‘professionals’ working in organisations or by individuals on an ad hoc basis.
  • Smuggling organisations differ in terms of their level of integration. Most smuggling networks are loosely connected, based on fluid contacts.
  • With some exceptions, smuggling organisations are generally not systematically involved in other major transnational organised crime activities.
  • Smuggling organisations are involved in a range of corrupt practices.

Successful smugglers are normally very knowledgeable on the best ways to profit from migrants’ desires to reach a particular destination country. They may be proactive in creating demand for the smuggling services that they offer. They often misinform aspiring migrants about the prospects for successful entry and the ease of the journey, and create false expectations about life at destination. They may also adopt strategic marketing techniques and adapt their fees to migrants’ demand in order to maximise revenues. That said, smuggling services are also traded with- out deception, like other services. Along some routes, smugglers need to establish trust and credibility. To mitigate risks, potential new migrants often seek advice from those who were smuggled before. Satisfied clients create a reputation that attracts new clients for smugglers.

Marketing and recruitment

Proactive recruitment of migrants by smugglers is a pat- tern observed along nearly all routes. Smugglers (often in ‘broker’ roles) are crucial in creating aspirations and generating demand for their services through deception and manipulation. Smugglers in recruiting roles often operate in different villages and towns, sometimes targeting youth. Several factors seem to motivate migrants’ deci- sions to use smuggling services, including the perception that circumventing legal requirements is cheaper than regular migration options, or that smuggled migrants may find better jobs. Along some smuggling routes, migrants could reach their desired destination simply by crossing the border, but even so, many pay smugglers who peddle the lie that border crossings are not possible without assistance.

This does not mean that decisions to migrate are always influenced by smugglers. People often decide to migrate for many different reasons, and they simply try to gather information on the best way to do it. Smugglers often advertise their services in places where migrants may be found, such as railway stations, cafes, bazaars and other meeting places.

In smuggling hubs, smugglers advertise their services openly, sometimes by displaying photos from destination countries with grateful clients showing off their sporty cars and new clothes. Some cases involve intermediaries who advertise smuggling services and refer potential migrants to a particular smuggler. They may receive payments from both the smuggler and the migrant for this service.

Smugglers publicise their services to reach people who have decided to migrate as well as to entice those who have not necessarily been considering it. As modern enter- prises, smugglers also advertise their services through various social media channels.

Smugglers are usually found by word of mouth through extended networks. Smugglers in intermediary roles often belong to the migrants’ community: they are friends, relatives, community members or returnees who are trusted by the would-be migrants. Diasporas also play an important role in providing information on where to go to get in touch with smugglers and in facilitating contact with them. Diaspora communities also provide recommendations and ‘blacklists’ of smugglers.

Prices and payment methods: meeting demand

Smuggling fees change significantly according to a range of factors including distance, region, mode of transportation, border controls, difficulty of the border crossing and other factors. Smugglers operate much like legal entrepreneurs and charge different fees for different services. Usually, the higher the price, the higher the probability of a successful smuggling service. At the same time, a steep price does not guarantee a safe and successful smuggling passage, despite the smuggler’s promises.

One example of how smugglers use different prices for different services can be found along the Eastern Mediterranean route. The price for the journey from Turkey’s coasts to any of the Greek islands ranges from €900 up to €7,000.
Fluctuations in prices are not only related to the comfort and safety of the means of transportation. Prices also often change according to the season, and tend to be cheaper when the trip is more dangerous. Prices may also reflect the outcome of negotiations between migrants and smugglers. Such negotiations - over prices, but also conditions, security issues, routes and vehicles - may to some extent depend on the migrant’s bargaining power vis a vis the smuggler.

The services offered vary along the different smuggling routes. On the Eastern Mediterranean route, for example - unlike the Central Mediterranean one – the smuggling fee usually includes ‘guaranteed delivery’. Buying a smuggling package entails several attempts; in case the crossing fails, the migrant is entitled to travel again for free until the destination is reached. A similar service is occasion- ally offered by smugglers facilitating movements from India to Europe.

In South-East Asia, smuggling services may also include job placement in the destination country. Even if job placement is not included, the smuggling fee paid by migrants typically covers not only the cost of crossing the border, but also accommodation and transportation to the employer.

In addition, the smuggling fee may differ according to the sex and citizenship of the migrants. This price differentiation could be related to the higher or lower demand for the services by certain nationalities, as well as the migrants’ perceived purchasing power. For example, Syrian citizens are often charged high fees, as they are perceived to be wealthier than people of many other nationalities seeking to make their way to Europe along the same routes.

Smugglers may request that migrants pay up front for border crossings. More often, however, migrants pay in different stages along the route, with an initial payment before the crossing, and final payment when the destination is reached. Payment up front increases the vulnerability of migrants during the travel since the smuggler has already been paid and has little incentive to treat migrants properly and make safe travel arrangements.

While payments after the border crossing mitigate the risks as it is in the interest of the smuggler that migrants arrive safely at destination.

In those cases where the smuggling fee covers one single border crossing, payments are either made up front or more often in two instalments; one before departure and one upon arrival. This is how smugglers operate along the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, for instance. Upon an initial payment, smugglers lead migrants across the border, and once on the other side, the migrant pays the final instalment.

However, smugglers do not always travel with migrants across the border. On the Eastern Mediterranean route, for example, some migrants pay half of the fee in advance. The balance is paid by relatives or friends once written or oral confirmation and pictures of the migrant in the country of destination are returned as proof of safe arrival.

In general, the longer the smuggling route, the more sophisticated the payment method. One of the most used methods along long smuggling routes is hawala. This system involves relatives, friends or trustworthy acquaintances in the country of origin. Before leaving their country, migrants or their relatives give the money to a trustworthy person, a guarantor or hawaladar. During the journey, the fee is transferred by the guarantor to the smuggling organiser once the migrant has arrived at destination. In cases where multiple payments have been agreed, the migrant contacts the hawaladar at various points of the journey to request the release of money to smugglers once each leg of the travel is safely completed.
The hawala system is widely used by migrants who are smuggled from South-West Asia along the Eastern Mediterranean route. Migrants smuggled from East Africa towards Europe in an organised smuggling undertaking also often rely on the hawala system.

When the hawala system is not used, transfers from destination countries are often arranged through commercial money transfer agencies. In these cases, money is deposited with an agency and protected by a security code. Once the migrant confirms his or her safe arrival in the intermediary or final destination, the money is released to the smuggler through disclosure of the security code.

Other forms of payment may be used in other regions of origin. Nevertheless, the schemes resemble those described above, with payments disclosed at different stages of the journey, according to the progress of the smuggling process.

Who operates the migrant smuggling

A range of different actors are involved in the smuggling of migrants: ‘professional’ smugglers working in organised groups, amateur smugglers working independently, former smuggled migrants and travel agents, to mention some. Amateur smugglers are ordinary men and women of varying ages and occupations who provide smuggling services. These smugglers usually provide transportation or work as guides through ad-hoc arrangements. They are normally involved in smuggling via land borders, where migrants are hidden in trucks and cars or guided to the border on foot along remote paths. They are called malayitsha in Southern Africa, coyotes or polleros in the Americas, or generally ‘passeurs’ or ‘taxi drivers’.

Amateur smugglers who function as transport operators and guides do not necessarily offer smuggling services on their own, but could work as employees for well-organised ‘professional’ smugglers or in groups that connect migrants to other amateur smugglers. In some cases, these individual guides and drivers are engaged by different professional smugglers. When working in groups, the amateurs often perform specific tasks and may work together seasonally or sporadically.

Members of local communities along migrant smuggling routes may also be involved in smuggling. Indigenous communities in some Andean countries, for example, or villagers in some coastal areas along the Red Sea appear to be involved in migrant smuggling. Certain communities along African smuggling routes have also created a livelihood around the smuggling of migrants.
Smugglers working together: a loose form of transnational organised crime
Professional smugglers are at the core of the organised smuggling groups that operate in many parts of the world. Smuggling organisations run the gamut from simple, one border operations to complex schemes capable of transferring migrants across continents and multiple borders. The larger smuggling rings need a range of smugglers operating at different phases of the journey, such as recruiters, intermediaries, brokers, accommodation managers, drivers, guides and others. When smuggling is carried out by organised groups, all these roles are part of the same organization or within easy reach. The profile of smugglers tends to change according to the person’s role in the smuggling process.

Along many routes, the smuggling is not limited to the facilitation of an irregular border crossing, but also to the preparation and follow-up phases. Some of the routes are planned in multiple stages with different actors operating in origin, transit and destination countries. This does not necessarily mean that these actors are part of a structured organization, responding to the same hierarchy. Along many smuggling routes, smuggler brokers refer ‘their’ migrants to other local smugglers for particular border crossings. In some cases, smugglers ‘outsource’ parts of the process, passing migrants from one local smuggler to the next. In these cases, it is more accurate to speak about ‘smuggling networks’. This indicates the existence of systematic contacts based on business relations, but not a hierarchical structure.

The levels of integration within smuggling networks vary in different parts of the world. Along most routes, smuggling is carried out by loose associations of individuals, including a wide network of opportunists who operate on a small scale, usually without ties to major organised crime groups. Such networks tend to operate on a very local level. Members of these networks may work as guides, agents, taxi, bus and lorry drivers, connecting migrants with other facilitators at other locations, or transporting them along segments of the route.

Along major routes, such as the Eastern Mediterranean or the route from the Horn of Africa to Europe different organisations are active. In some cases, it is also possible to find more sophisticated and highly professional organisations. In North Africa, much of the smuggling industry seem to be based on more hierarchical organisational structures than those observed in other regions. South-West and East Asian smuggling networks tend to make use of managers in origin countries, as well as members in transit countries, to maintain connections with inter- national networks and coordinate a network of local smuggler agents. These are generally well-established and have an internal division of labour.

Connections with other organised criminal activities and armed groups

Linkages between smuggling networks and other criminal markets appear to be exceptions rather than the rule. While there is a clear connection between smuggling of migrants and corruption at many levels along most routes, the available literature does not suggest frequent relations or collaboration between those carrying out migrant smuggling and other forms of organised crime.
As a general pattern, it appears that migrant smugglers do not systematically engage in trafficking in firearms, illicit drugs or other ‘major’ illicit trafficking activities. There are some exceptions in different parts of the world, namely in West Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Central America along the northward route towards the United States. In the latter case, there is little evidence of a nexus or convergence among the different actors.

In some areas within the Sahel in Africa, smuggling net- works and other criminal groups appear to have systematic contacts. Many illegal trades may cross this territory, including the transportation of smuggled migrants.

In other areas, including parts of West Asia and Central and North America, powerful and structured criminal organisations are ‘taxing’ migrant smugglers to cross the areas under their control. Payment of this ‘tax’ is meant to guarantee migrants a safe passage. In some cases, however, smugglers may sell migrants to these criminal groups who may then extort ransoms from migrants’ families. Illicit drug cartels may impose taxes on each migrant traveling along the American routes to the United States. Failure to pay has resulted in torture and even killings.

The situation in Libya appears to be unique, given the historic role of this country in the smuggling of migrants in combination with its unstable political situation and insecurity. Contacts or cooperation between smuggling networks and militia groups in Libya have been reported, and some of the armed groups in that country are allegedly involved in different types of criminal activity, including migrant smuggling.

There are indications that some groups involved in the smuggling of migrants are also involved in drug trafficking.

One of the key routes for cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe passes through West Africa.188 Along the internal African routes leading to North Africa, both cocaine and migrants may be smuggled to the Mediterranean shores and eventually to Europe.

The profile of smugglers

The smugglers’ profiles vary according to route. As a general pattern, the citizenship and sometimes also ethnic profile of the smugglers is linked either to the territory where they are operating, or to the profiles of the migrants that they are smuggling. Smugglers in organising roles are typically of the same nationality as migrants, while smugglers operating at border crossings are normally linked to the territory.

As far as the gender profiles of smugglers, the literature suggests that – as for most crimes - a large majority of migrant smugglers are men. Women smugglers may be involved in the recruitment of migrants, and they may receive and / or escort migrants to their temporary accommodation between different stages of the route. Women also carry out ‘support’ functions, such as caring for children, preparing food and arranging for ‘safe houses.’

On certain smuggling routes or for some modus operandi, women appear to play more prominent roles. In South- West Asia, for example, some sources note that women are involved in the smuggling of some migrants by air as they are less likely to attract the attention of authorities. Ethiopian women were also reportedly part of smuggling operations from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa a few years ago. Still, also along this route, the typical smuggler is a man aged from 18 to 40 of Ethiopian or Somali origin.

In terms of age, different studies indicate that the average age of smugglers typically ranges between 30-35 years. There are some exceptions, however. For instance, along the border between the United States and Mexico, some teenagers have reportedly been participating in migrant smuggling. Their roles have been relatively minor, how- ever; usually they have served as lookouts or guides.

From smuggled migrant to migrant smuggler

In addition to their ethnicity, gender and age profiles, another emerging pattern is the smugglers’ life experiences. Often smugglers are former migrants who, success- fully or not, were smuggled along the same route on which they later operate. In some cases, they are returnees or have chosen to settle in countries they transited along a smuggling route.

Most smugglers active in the city of Agadez, Niger are former migrants who have established themselves there after returning from North Africa. They are able to con- vince newly arrived migrants with their knowledge of the route ahead and the connections needed to cross the Sahara, and can therefore be effective recruiters. This pattern has been found along many other smuggling routes as well, such as from West Asia towards Europe or some routes directed towards Southern Africa. A related pattern relates to the role of smuggled migrants who are still on their way to their intended final destination, but work as smugglers (often in recruiting or intermediary roles) to finance their own journey.

Another commonly reported smuggler profile is that of the ‘legal’ travel agent. In some areas, smugglers have been found to run travel agencies as a cover for their smuggling operations. The role of travel agents appears to be particularly significant for migrant smuggling by air. Travel agents may blend regular travellers with smuggled migrants to disguise the crime. In other cases, smugglers may genuinely consider their travel businesses to be legal, and they may see themselves as providers of humanitarian services, helping people to flee and reach safety.

The roles of women in migrant smuggling

Although the literature on migrant smuggling is growing, researchers have to this date paid limited attention to the roles of women in the market. A recent study commissioned by UNODC analysed a set of case briefs of nearly 100 criminal cases of migrant smuggling or facilitation of irregular migration from 20 different countries in order to shed light on the involvement of women.a While the sample is not representative of all the women who participate in smuggling, the study generated some interesting findings.

Smuggling operations often involve specific tasks carried out by different smugglers who work individually, but who are loosely connected among themselves working towards a common goal. The study found that women perform tasks often similar to those handled by men. They recruit migrants, carry out logistical tasks such as purchasing tickets or renting locations that serve as ‘safe houses’ prior to the migrants’ arrival, obtain fraudulent documents and collect smuggling fees.

But some smuggling tasks were performed mostly by women. For example, women tend to be more frequently involved in the provision of room and board as well as caring for sick or vulnerable migrants (including children and elderly people). Women are less often behind the wheel of motor vehicles or working as guides; yet they may accompany male smugglers during transits, posing as companions so that their vehicles avoid unwanted attention from law enforcement.

Women tend to be the lesser visible actors in smuggling investigations. One explanation may be that most smuggling cases in which women participate are small scale; in this sample, women most often worked independently, transporting individual or small groups of migrants, which is likely to attract little attention from the authorities (women were less often involved in cases involving large smuggling operations –in this sample, 20 or more migrants). After solo operations, the second most common form of organised smuggling in which women participate involved working in pairs. In a finding that mirrors a pattern also seen for trafficking in persons,b women often worked alongside their intimate partners, or were mothers or daughters of male co- defendants. At least fifteen cases involved women who worked alongside their intimate partners. Two cases involved mothers who travelled with their sons as they committed the smuggling offence, and one included a daughter-father duo. While two of the cases included women who were unaware of their co-defendant’s intentions, and at least two other involved women who had worked with their male partners out of coercion or fear, the rest of the cases showed no evidence of women being forced to engage in smuggling activities.

While most women participate in smuggling seeking financial returns, 30 per cent of those in the sample were convicted for facilitating the irregular migration of friends and family members for no financial or other material benefit. The study revealed that while the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol calls for this practice not to be criminalised, many jurisdictions still consider it a crime. This appears to disproportionally impact women, who tend to be more likely than men to engage in the facilitation of irregular migration (including their own) with the goal of becoming reunited with family members while fleeing situations of risk and imminent danger or as a result of migration law restrictions. Clearly more research into women’s roles in migrant smuggling is needed. This initial analysis identified several possible areas to address the gap.

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

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