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The Human Smuggling–Trafficking Nexus: Defining the Relationship to Help Disrupt Criminal Networks and their Profits

Anne-Marie Barry
Commentary, 26 April 2016
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, Organised Crime
Human trafficking and people smuggling remain low-risk, high-reward crimes. To turn them into high-risk, low-reward crimes the financial networks of the criminal groups involved need to be disrupted. This cannot be done without conceptual clarity on the distinctions and the convergences between trafficking and smuggling.

As the migrant deportations under the contentious EU–Turkey deal begin, European governments continue to grapple with responses to the mass movement of migrants and refugees – more than 150,000 arrived in Greece and Italy in the first three months of this year alone. With increasing numbers taking ever more dangerous routes to enter the EU in the face of increasingly restrictive migration policies, smugglers are seizing the opportunity to make high profits in growing demands for illegal passage. 

The migrant and refugee crisis comes within a context of increasing political concern worldwide on such issues as irregular migration flows, transnational smuggling networks and human trafficking. Concomitant action plans to target the criminals and proceeds behind these networks have been placed high up on policy agendas, seen for example in the recently launched Global Action Plan to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants Programme (focusing on Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America). In the UK, improving efforts to detect the illicit proceeds of human trafficking networks is part of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Strategic Plan for the next two years.

Though this increased focus is welcome, the continued lack of nuanced understanding of both the criminal groups that lie behind these networks and the socio-economic and political contexts that enable the flourishing of these crimes has led to inadequate or even counter-productive responses

One particular misunderstanding relates to the difference between human trafficking and people smuggling, and how they interact with each other. As both crimes have risen in prominence, there has been a tendency from policy-makers and media outlets to use the terms interchangeably. Whilst in practice the crimes can be closely interrelated, they are distinct both legally and conceptually, and it is important to understand both how they are different and how they interact in order to effectively tackle the relevant criminal networks and their profits. 

In the context of international crime prevention, trafficking was traditionally addressed as a cross-border crime involving the smuggling of people, arms and drugs. The UN Trafficking Protocol in 2000 served to distinguish trafficking from smuggling, defining it as a more complex process of recruitment or movement of persons by the means of coercion and deception, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation may take such forms as forced labour, domestic servitude, forced criminality and sexual services. Last year human trafficking was codified in the UK under the legal umbrella term of ‘modern slavery’

Smuggling, by contrast, is defined in the UN’s Smuggling of Migrants Protocol from 2000 as the facilitation of the illegal entry of people across international borders to obtain a financial or other material benefit. The three ways in which the smuggling of migrants differs from the trafficking of persons are therefore:

  • Exploitation/profit source: the primary purpose of trafficking is to profit from exploitation. In a smuggling case, the profit is generated through money paid for facilitated illegal entry into a country. After illegal entry has taken place, the relationship between smuggler and migrant ends.
  • Transnationality: smuggling is a cross-border crime. Trafficking, on the other hand, can occur both cross-border and within state borders. In the UK, for example, 300 of those identified as potentially trafficked in 2014 were UK citizens.
  • Consent: Smuggled migrants usually consent to being smuggled. In a trafficking case, a person has either never consented, or more frequently, been deceived or coerced, thereby rendering the consent meaningless. 

In practice, however, the two are not always so neatly separated, and recent research has found that the opportunity for a smuggled migrant to become trafficked can occur easily on arrival to their destination country, where they may be held in debt bondage and made to work to pay back their travel costs, or as a result of their irregular status and consequent vulnerability. Some smuggling syndicates are now offering packages that include facilitating exploitative work opportunities to pay back travel debt or obtaining forged documents or residence permits for illegal migrants. This was discovered in a recently exposed trafficking–smuggling ring which charged migrants €14,000 for transportation from Pakistan to Spain. On reaching Spain, the migrants were made to work in restaurants throughout the country under abusive conditions, for long hours and no salary. 

Not all those who are trafficked are illegal migrants, but those who have been smuggled or entered through illegal documentation are most easily exploited: their irregular status and consequent lack of rights and protections (and likely fear of authorities) make them easy targets, and the demand for low-skilled jobs coupled with a lack of labour regulation in some destination countries make trafficking not only possible but lucrative. 

Prosecution rates for trafficking and smuggling remain low due to an overall lack of data and understanding of the modus operandi of both types of criminal networks. What is clear, however, is that profits from both criminal enterprises are extremely high. For example, a report from the UK Home Office in October 2013 found that proceeds per year from human trafficking into the UK for sexual exploitation were estimated at £130 million, and those of organised people smuggling at £88 million. Europol estimates that in 2015 criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling had a turnover of between €3-6 billion

However, the transnational nature of the crimes, predominant use of cash payments and informal banking systems, as well as the multiplicity of agents involved (from recruiters, to middle men, transporters and, in the case of trafficking, extended actors involved in the destination country) make following financial trails extremely difficult. 

The two crimes share similar ‘red flag’ indicators such as multiple money transfers to the same beneficiary, or frequent deposits and withdrawals with no apparent business source. But in cases in which exploitation is occurring there are often additional indicators, such as groups of customers of the same nationality opening up accounts with the same address, or a business customer in a ‘high-risk’ industry who seems to have little pay roll expenditure. Human trafficking cases are more complex because in addition to forced criminality and sexual exploitation, exploitation can also take place in legitimate trading activities such as construction, agriculture, service sectors and manufacturing. 

The smuggling – and in some cases trafficking – which has flourished during the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis makes palpable the way in which both crimes function by reaping profit from the vulnerable and precarious status of others. Human trafficking is the most grievous manifestation of this profiteering, and the crime continues to grow both with and without illegal migration. In terms of the smuggling–trafficking nexus, money laundering associated with a smuggling network can indeed lead to the discovery of human trafficking, and vice-versa, but the two can also work entirely separately.  

Proactive financial investigations into the money laundering risks associated with trafficking and smuggling are imperative to the disruption of both crimes. However, much more needs to be done to turn these low-risk, high-reward crimes into high-risk, low-reward crimes. The understanding of how the two can interact with the financial system both separately and together is an important step in the process of bringing these complex and clandestine networks into the light. The Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI will discuss this intearction in an upcoming paper.

Photo Courtesy of ICE

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