Researchers report that human smuggling has recently grown significantly in many regions. Smuggling continues to pose serious challenges for law enforcement agencies, particularly as past efforts to curtail it have largely been unsuccessful.
Human smuggling operates globally, with large numbers along the U.S. southern border. The annual number of unauthorized entries into the U.S. several years ago was approximately 3 million, with most utilizing the services of the smuggling industry. In the month of May, U.S. immigration agents caught more than 180,000 people attempting entry from Mexico, a two-decade record high.
Also in May, the number of unauthorized migrants arrivals into Europe was more than double that in May 2020. At the peak of the recent May influx, more than 1,000 boats loaded with unauthorized migrants arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa within a period of 12 hours.
Individuals may attempt to migrate illegally on their own, and some do. However, smuggler services, which are invariably risky, dangerous and at times deadly, are considered invaluable and likely to achieve reaching the destination. Over the past 25 years, more than 75,000 people have died worldwide attempting to migrate illegally.
Smugglers provide services to a variety of people, including those escaping natural disasters, armed conflict, violence, poverty, lack of employment and poor governance. Demand for smuggling services is high among refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing war-torn countries.
Smugglers are skilled at increasing demand by active recruitment efforts, including the posting of rates, destinations, travel dates, types of transportation and WhatsApp numbers. Smugglers also distribute misinformation using Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, offering assurances and guaranteed safe passage across borders.
The costs to smuggle migrants depend on the distance, origin, destination and expenses, including bribes, payoffs and passing charges. Smuggling fees range from several thousand dollars to up to tens of thousands with payment ruthlessly enforced. It is widely recognized that nonpayment to smugglers can be deadly or result in serious bodily injury.
In February, human smugglers along the U.S. southern border made more than $410 million, or an average of nearly $15 million per day, smuggling people from Mexico and Central America. One apprehended smuggler reported making $200,000 working part-time over a 10-month period smuggling unauthorized migrants through the El Paso, Texas, checkpoint.
Besides arranging for transportation, smugglers also offer other services, which can be exploitative and injurious to migrants. Smugglers provide rudimentary lodging where migrants can take temporary shelter; fraudulent documents including visas, identity cards and birth certificates; and guides to help avoid detection when crossing borders.
In addition to services, human smugglers offer advice. For example, smugglers are well aware of routes and sanctuary places and instruct their clients to blend in as quickly as possible after arriving.
If caught at the border, migrants may say they are seeking asylum. Asylum is a human right that has been emphasized by American government officials and recently expanded in the U.S. to include domestic abuse and gang violence.
Smugglers also advise families to send children unaccompanied. Border authorities, they claim, are permitting unaccompanied minors to enter, who are then sent to shelters before reunification with family members.
Authorities have plans and programs to crack down on human smugglers. As part of the U.S. response to the recent surge of migrants arriving at its southern border, the administration launched a multi-agency operation targeting human smuggling organizations.
Also, the European Commission proposed a new European Union action plan against migrant smuggling for 2021-2025. That plan includes improving cooperation with countries of origin and transit and return of those with no right to stay.
Despite plans and efforts, human smugglers are not likely to go out of business any time soon. Smugglers are responding largely to the great migration clash occurring worldwide.
That clash is the result of the imbalance between the large supply of men, women and children in impoverished sending countries seeking to migrate, numbering hundreds of millions, and the comparatively limited demand for those migrants in prosperous receiving countries, numbering several million annually.
Also, human smuggling involves large profits and offers little risks for the smugglers, despite the efforts of governments and international organizations. The organized criminal networks and smuggling facilitators are often difficult to apprehend and prosecute.
Smugglers are oftentimes facilitated by corrupt officials, paid off individuals and sympathetic others in both sending and receiving countries. Smuggled migrants who secure work, typically low-paid jobs, send remittances back home, which are welcomed by not only needy families but also governments as an important source of investment and external financing.
U.S. remittances to the Northern Triangle region, for example, are approximately $20 billion annually. It accounts for a fifth of the GDP for El Salvador and Honduras and a seventh of Guatemala’s.
Smuggling operations can be adapted and modified quickly in response to changing conditions. Smugglers are skilled at avoiding arrest and appearing in courts, especially as unauthorized migrants fear involvement in legal proceedings.
Moreover, most unauthorized migrants once settled are not being sent back. Among the factors for avoiding repatriation are the economic costs, social disruptions, legal proceedings, human rights questions and ethical issues.
In addition, with the public largely sympathetic to the plight of unauthorized migrants — nearly 70 percent of Americans expressing sympathy for migrants illegally in the country — governments have adopted a de facto policy of not repatriating settled unauthorized migrants. Also, in many instances legalization programs or amnesties are offered.
In sum, given the powerful push-pull migration forces operating worldwide, it appears likely that at least for the foreseeable future, human smugglers will continue and perhaps even expand their highly profitable services to men, women and children for illegal immigration.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."