Unpacking the Myths around Human Smuggling in and from ...

© Sven Torfinn | Niger, Sahara. Truck loaded with about 150 migrants bound for Libya or Algeria, making a stop for repairs between Agadez and the border.

Unpacking the Myths around Human Smuggling in and from East Africa

January 19, 2018. Written by: Danielle Botti - Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat East Africa and Yemen


Many migrants and refugees use smugglers to navigate multiple land, sea, and/or air borders to reach their destinations. A new RMMS briefing paper, ‘Unpacking the Myths: Human Smuggling from and within the Horn of Africa’, offers new estimates of the volume of smuggling, the value of the illicit migrant smuggling economy, and the conditions and risks faced by smuggled migrants.

In East Africa, migrant smuggling occurs both within the Horn of Africa, and out of the region – this paper examines the trends along three major routes heading North-west to Europe, East to Yemen and the Gulf, and South to southern Africa. The paper also provides information on the operations of migrant smuggling – including smuggling routes, activities, and profiles. The research draws on various primary and secondary sources, and relies heavily on data from the RMMS Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi), a unique longitudinal monitoring approach using informal migrant monitors and remote mobile survey technology. During this research period, September 2014 to March 2017, monitors conducted 3,522 interviews with migrants from the Horn of Africa and 153 structured interviews with smugglers in various countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Human smuggling is big business

This paper finds that migrant smuggling within and from the Horn of Africa continues to occur, with new smuggling routes opening in response to irregular migration related risks and law enforcement responses to migrant smuggling on traditionally popular routes. Smuggling as part of the mixed migration flows are more and more common, particularly as travel across borders becomes more dangerous. 4Mi data shows that at least 73% of migrants are using smugglers for at least part of their journey. The key findings from the research explore the dynamics and trends of this elicit trade:

  • Migrant smuggling within and from the Horn of Africa remains a vibrant business, and new smuggling routes continue to open - largely in response to political and economic factors, migration risks, and law enforcement efforts to curtail certain routes.
  • Many smugglers are young men who enter the smuggling trade because they have limited employment opportunities in their home countries, and smuggling activities are more lucrative than other job opportunities in their home countries.
  • Across all three major routes leading out of the region, smuggling networks are organised. Some networks resembling loose, horizontal networks in which smugglers work collaboratively across national borders. In these networks, smugglers tend to hand over the migrants at borders to new smugglers operating the subsequent leg/s of the journey. Other networks, particularly Libya-based smuggling networks along the North-western route to Europe are increasingly hierarchical, with smuggling kingpins dominating the smuggling business from Libya, and Horn of Africa smugglers playing important, but usually subordinate, positions to the Libyan kingpins.
  • For most smugglers operating in the region, migrant smuggling is the primary criminal enterprise. Predominantly on the Eastern, and North-western routes, smugglers may also be involved in other criminal activities, such as trafficking in persons, 1 kidnapping, and extortion. 
  • Government officials are reported to be involved, directly and indirectly, in migrant smuggling operations. Without this collaboration smugglers would likely encounter significant obstacles to conducting successful migrant smuggling ventures.
  • With a reported pre-departure average expenditure for smuggling services of USD 1,036 per migrant, 2 the smuggling business remains lucrative for those involved. With a reported average expenditure of USD 2,371 3 per migrant on bribes and extortion, it is clear that many other individuals, including border guards, militia, kidnappers, and traffickers, are also profiting from the flows of smuggled migrants within and from the Horn of Africa.
  • The migration flows within and from the Horn of Africa are mixed, 4 with asylum seekers and refugees being smuggled alongside economic migrants.
  • Various political and socio-economic factors motivate irregular migration from the Horn of Africa region. The level of migration is highly reactive to political and other pressures, as well as national migration policy. Movement from the region is both in response to short-term crises, as well as rooted in long-term factors.
  • Most smuggled migrants from the Horn of Africa are young, single men; however, the number of female migrants is reportedly increasing. Also reportedly increasing is the number of unaccompanied Horn of Africa minors travelling irregularly to Europe, the Gulf States and Middle East, and Southern Africa.
  • Some migrants initiate the first leg of travel, and navigate one or more subsequent segments of travel without the aid of smugglers. These migrants tend to pay smugglers, where they are used, for each individual part of the journey, using cash or informal money transfer systems, such as hawala systems (informal financial transfers outside of the traditional banking system). 5 Other migrants use the services of smugglers to take them from their home country all the way to the destination country - some of these migrants pay for the entire journey in advance.
  • The paper finds that paying for the entire smuggling journey in advance does not reduce the vulnerability of migrants to exploitation and abuse during the journey.
  • In terms of volume, the most popular smuggling route is the Eastern route to the Gulf States and the Middle East. Horn of Africa migrants are also still being smuggled in large numbers to Europe, and to Southern Africa, particularly South Africa.

1  Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, 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 the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

2  This is the average amount that interviewed migrants reported paying to smugglers, prior to the smuggling venture. The figure is derived from RMMS structured interviews with migrants, conducted between September 2014 to March 2017.

3  This is the average amount that interviewed migrants reported paying on bribes, extortion etc. The figure is derived from RMMS structured interviews with migrants, conducted between September 2014 to March 2017.

4  Irregular migration in and from the Horn of Africa region is mixed, comprising undocumented migrants, irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who are motivated to migrate due to various political and socio-economic factors. Mixed migration can be understood as complex population movements including asylum seekers, refugees, economic and other migrants travelling in an irregular manner, on similar routes, using similar means of travel, but for different purposes.

5  Hawala is an informal money transfer system, which is widely used in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. The system operates outside of, and/or parallel to, traditional banking and remittance systems.

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