Understanding human smuggling is key to better migration policy

Research in Turkey, Niger, Libya and the Horn of Africa provides vital data on smugglers and their booming industry.

Pretoria, South Africa – Human smugglers are responsible for the loss of life and abuse of vulnerable migrants escaping conflict, violent extremism and chronic poverty in Africa. But what do we know about smugglers and their business models?

Pioneering research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (Global Initiative) gets to the heart of the ‘migration crisis’. The study presents a unique picture of the smugglers at the centre of contemporary migration and offers African perspectives to a debate dominated by Europe.

The research findings – based on conversations with migrants and smugglers in Turkey, Niger, Libya and the Horn of Africa – will be launched on Thursday 8 December at a seminar hosted by the ISS and the Global Initiative in Geneva, Switzerland.

‘Organised crime has profited from the rapid boom in human migration towards Europe,’ says Mark Micallef, Director of the Migrant Report and one of the project’s field researchers. ‘Our research in the Sahel and North Africa shows that the networks that move migrants into Europe now span dozens of countries.’

While some smugglers are undoubtedly engaged in a criminal enterprise, this is not the case for all of them. The research dispels the notion that stopping migrant smuggling is simply about arresting or removing the criminals who drive the industry. It provides much-needed data on the various actors who are drawn into smuggling and their reasons for getting involved. 

In some cases, smuggling may be the lesser of two evils. When there are no more migrants, we will go back to war, or we will kidnap white people [for ransom],’ one smuggler in Niger told researchers Peter Tinti and Tom Westcott.

A key aim of the study is to improve approaches to stemming the flow of migrants. ‘The lack of transparency and effectiveness in current efforts by the African Union and the European Union is a challenge,’ says Global Initiative Deputy Director Tuesday Reitano. ‘It is important that efforts do not depart from a “first do no harm” premise.’

By providing new perspectives, the research can help policymakers respond effectively and without prejudice to migrants and those who facilitate their movement, including some smugglers. The international community’s response has often missed the nuances of the phenomenon and as a result, the smuggling of people – fed by ongoing conflicts, the refugee movements and exploitation – has become the most profitable form of smuggling.

Read the full research results here:

  • Breathing space: the impact of the EU-Turkey deal on irregular migration, ISS Paper by Tuesday Reitano & Mark Micallef
  • The Niger-Libya corridor: smugglers' perspectives, ISS Paper by Peter Tinti & Tom Westcott
  • At the edge: trends and routes of North African clandestine migrants, ISS Paper by Matthew Herbert
  • The Khartoum Process: A sustainable response to human smuggling and trafficking? ISS Policy Brief by Tuesday Reitano

For inquiries and to arrange media interviews:

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Acting Head, Migration Programme, ISS [email protected], +31 6 57 50 01 35 or +27 825 889755

Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director, Global Initiative [email protected], +41 76 793 7174

Picture: ©IOM/Nicole Tung

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the following members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.
Related content