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You are here: Home Research Resources Expert Guides Human Smuggling and Trafficking Overview




The smuggling and trafficking of people are not new phenomena and have existed as long as there have been boundaries between peoples and nations. The activities of individuals such as Raoul Wallenberg or Oscar Schindler in Europe during the early 1940s would now be regarded as human smuggling. Even as late as the Tiananmen Square protests in China, the irregular movement of people to Hong Kong facilitated by snakehead gangs was not of major concern to the international community.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, concern over human trafficking and smuggling has progressed up the policy agendas of many countries. Arguably it was the governments of Europe and North America that led this impetus in the 1990s, involving other regions if they happened to be countries of origin, transit, or reception for irregular migrants. It is also a period in which increasing efforts to control the movement of irregular migrants led to a plethora of visa restrictions, readmission treaties, carrier sanctions, airline liaison officers, and efforts to link development assistance to promises of controlling the movement of people.

Research into the trafficking and smuggling of people has only really mushroomed in the past ten years. The global industry was valued at between US$5.7 billion at an International Organization for Migration (IOM) Conference in 1994, but rigorous methodology for such calculations has been slower to emerge. By the mid-1990s, trafficking and smuggling had come to be seen as issues of migration management and control. By the late 1990s, human trafficking and smuggling had been framed as issues of transnational organized crime, and as a threat to both societies and economies. In the year 2000 the United Nations Convention on Trans-national Organized Crime was signed in Palermo, Italy, recognizing an international distinction between human 'smuggling' and 'trafficking' (explained in Section 1.2 below). This is a distinction that is still ignored by many in the media, by many politicians, and by some researchers.

This research guide sets out approaches to smuggling and trafficking under the three dominant policy paradigms of human rights ( Section 2), migration management ( Section 3), and organized crime ( Section 4). It does no more than lay out some of the distinctions and suggest sources for more specialized information.

Definitions and international law

Smuggling and trafficking now have legal definitions under the UN Convention on Trans-national Organized Crime 2000, which are likely to enter into international law during 2003. Each has a separate Protocol to the Convention; smuggling and trafficking are defined as follows:

'Smuggling of migrants shall mean the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.'

'Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer and harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.'

Through the clear separation of smuggling and trafficking, the victimization of trafficked people is widely accepted. However, smuggled migrants' human rights, especially smuggled refugees' right to protection of smuggled refugees, arguably receive too little attention. While states have a great interest in cracking down on human smuggling as an international crime, there is hardly any discussion of alternative options for refugees in need of protection.

UN Convention on Trans-national Organized Crime 2000, Protocols and list of signatory countries. As of August 2002, the Convention had been signed by 142 countries and ratified by eighteen.
'Smuggling Protocol' (Annex III to the Convention: Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air). As of August 2002, the 'Smuggling Protocol' had been signed by 102 countries and ratified by thirteen, and requires a total of forty ratifications to enter international law.
'Trafficking Protocol' (Annex II to the Convention: Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children) As of August 2002, the 'Trafficking Protocol' had been signed by 106 countries and ratified by fourteen, and requires a total of forty ratifications to enter international law. For a good analysis, go to The Annotated Guide to the Complete UN Trafficking Protocol by the International Human Rights Law Group.

Political context and policy

Policy making and research in the area of human trafficking and smuggling can never be entirely divorced from political agendas or the economics of the marketplace. A series of writers, from different perspectives, have all argued the same point: that the growth of trafficking and smuggling has, at least in part, been a response to the growth of political efforts to stop less organized forms of irregular migration. This explains the 'business model' for illegal migration . where smugglers provide a service in lieu of legal means, or traffickers exploit the vulnerable. The 'human rights' case is also complex, given that much trafficking clearly exploits the human rights of many children and women. Yet there are sex workers who defend their right to work and migrate.

Another conundrum faces any attempt to end human smuggling that provides no legal or safe alternative to refugees who have no option other than to migrate illegally in order to escape a well-founded fear of persecution.

Any research on human smuggling or trafficking that claims to be 'value neutral' or 'politically objective' must be closely examined. For example, quantitative research can implicitly support notions of 'migration management' if it unwittingly assumes notions of the cultural or social status quo in the host community. Some political leaders will explicitly talk about the trafficking of 'illegal' migrants (e.g., Afghans to Australia in 2001), when it is clear that the process involved is 'smuggling' under the new definitions. The ability of the word 'trafficking' to arouse a more emotive response from the media and the public has not escaped the notice of politicians seeking re-election.

It is not helpful if the 'trafficked' migrant is always seen as the 'victim' and the smuggled migrant as more 'complicit'. Migrants often face few choices when fleeing persecution or leaving socio-economic insecurity. The assumption behind a lot of policy and research is that the phenomena of human trafficking and smuggling are intrinsically 'bad' and must be rooted out at all stages of the migration process. Little consideration is given to the fact that many migrants enter into these processes to defend their own human rights and in the absence of any legal alternatives.

Anderson, B. and O'Connell Davidson, J.,Trafficking . a Demand Led Problem?Trafficking . a Demand Led Problem?. Sweden: Save The Children, 2002.
Gallagher, A., 'Human Rights and the New UN Protocols on Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: A Preliminary Analysis Human Rights QuarterlyHuman Rights and the New UN Protocols on Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: A Preliminary Analysis'. Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 23, 2001.
Gallagher, A., 'Trafficking, Smuggling and Human Rights: Tricks and Treaties Forced Migration ReviewTrafficking, Smuggling and Human Rights: Tricks and Treaties'. Forced Migration Review, vol. 12, 2002.
Ghosh, B.,Huddled Masses and Uncertain Shores: Insights into Irregular MigrationHuddled Masses and Uncertain Shores: Insights into Irregular Migration. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1998.
Harding, J., 'The Uninvited'.London Review of BooksLondon Review of Books, vol. 22, no. 3, 2000.
Morrison, J., 'The Policy Implications Arising from the Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees into EuropeThe Policy Implications Arising from the Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees into Europe'. Seminar, Save The Children, Sweden, 2001.
Morrison, J. and Crosland, B.,The Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees: The End Game in European Asylum Policy?The Trafficking and Smuggling of Refugees: The End Game in European Asylum Policy?. Geneva: UNHCR Evaluation and Policy Unit, 2000.
Salt, J. and Stein 'Migration as a Business: The Case of Trafficking International MigrationMigration as a Business: The Case of Trafficking'. International Migration, vol. 34, no. 4, 1997.
Sassen, S., Guests and Aliens. New York: New Press, 1999.
Schloenhardt, A., 'Organised Crime and the Business of Migrant Trafficking: An Economic Analysis. Australian Institute of CriminologyOrganised Crime and the Business of Migrant Trafficking: An Economic Analysis. Australian Institute of Criminology, AIC Occasional Seminar, Canberra, 10 November 1999.

Quantitative research

In terms of understanding the international scale of the trafficking and smuggling phenomena, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva has played a central role. The initial assertion by Jonas Widgren that trafficking was worth between $5-7 billion annually, has since been modified by more regional and national research commissioned by IOM and others. One yardstick is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) annual report, Trends in International Migration ( Systeme d'observation permanente des migrations or SOPEMI, Paris). It is not always easy to factor out the number of people who are 'smuggled' or 'trafficked' within these global totals, not least because of the lack of consistency when defining either category, as well as the fact that these groups, by their very nature, are often undocumented. There are some gross figures for the undocumented populations of the USA (estimated at six million) and Western Europe (estimated at three million) and it can be inferred that the majority of these 'irregular migrants' will have attempted 'assisted irregular entry'.

However, the only accurate quantitative data on smuggling and trafficking are those compiled at the local, national, and (sometimes) regional levels. IOM has conducted many studies in Central and Eastern Europe, as has the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw. Quantitative data are also submitted by governments through Inter-governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration policies (IGC) as well as the EU's own CIREFI and CIREA working groups.

Quantitative data has also been compiled in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America by IOM. Regional data on the trafficking of workers is available through the programmes of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and those involving work on the exploitation of children through both ILO and UNICEF. There are also a range of NGO and academic reports from different parts of the world that capture some quantitative data on trafficking and smuggling.

For all data, it is worth questioning at all times whether the data relate to those smuggled, trafficked, both of these, or irregular migration more generally.

Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Union
Human Rights Watch
SOPEMI (2001) Trends in International Migration, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Paris.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research on trafficking and smuggling can be more interesting, as it defines the motives of the migrants and the agents who facilitate the migration. Most work has been conducted within the spectrum of trafficking, aiming to help try to understand how and why women, children, and men enter into process of exploitation as cheap or vulnerable labour. This can involve interviews in the country of origin, at stages during the migration process, or upon arrival within the context of illegal employment. There is now a growing international body of this work from all parts of the world, often conducted within localities and based on interviews, with those involved in the trafficking process.

Despite the fact that more migrants are smuggled than are trafficked, much less work has been conducted on those involved in smuggling. There are some studies of communities of refugees coming to Europe and migrant workers crossing the border between the USA and Mexico. Some governments have also conducted large-scale interviews of asylum seekers to try to understand why they have chosen their country as the destination.

There is sometimes no easy dividing line between qualitative research into those who are trafficked and those who are smuggled. Migrants might enter into a smuggling process only to end up being trafficked by the time they reach their destination. Whilst it is probably true that more refugees are smuggled than trafficked, and that most sex workers are trafficked rather than smuggled, there are many shades of grey in between. For example, it is quite possible for a migrant prostitute to have a well-founded fear of persecution relating to their country of origin.

Criminologists have also started working on the profiles and motivations of those who offer the smuggling and trafficking services. This work is as yet largely unpublished, but early studies suggest that organized irregular migration is increasingly operating within the parameters of any other types of transnational organized crime . whether it be the illicit movement of drugs, firearms, or people.

Anti-Slavery International
December 18 (a global NGO portal for protecting rights of migrants)
Human Rights Watch
Stop Traffic Listserv
Last updated Aug 17, 2011