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Countering Criminals, Protecting Migrants


Countering Criminals, Protecting Migrants

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When people are desperate to leave their countries but have limited access to regular migration pathways, the services offered by smugglers of migrants, though known to be risky, can often be the only option.  

Yet irregular journeys are often long and dangerous, with frequent incidence of violence, rape or extortion, and the conditions inhumane.

For many smuggled migrants, the dream of a better life in a new country tragically ends with the loss of life. Some migrants drown as their overcrowded boats sink, while others perish in the desert or suffocate in containers. More than a thousand deaths along migratory routes have been recorded so far in 2021.

Smuggled migrants who survive those dangerous journeys often find themselves in vulnerable situations, characterized by debt, stigma, marginalization and the risk of exploitation, and need assistance and protection from States upon their arrival.  The smuggling of migrants is a global and profitable form of transnational organized crime with high demand, and low risk of detection of criminals. The global business of smuggling of migrants generates an estimated minimum of USD 5.5 billion per year.

Mobility restrictions imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including enforced border closures and health requirements, are increasingly pushing migrants towards seeking irregular pathways and becoming entrapped by smuggling networks.

Countries need to step up measures to combat the smuggling of migrants by legitimately exercising their sovereignty over borders while fulfilling their duty to protect and assist migrants and not criminalize them for being the object of the criminal acts of smugglers.

Today, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice starts its work in Vienna and online.

For the first time, its proceedings will include a thematic discussion on smuggling of migrants, with a clear emphasis on protecting migrants’ rights. This provides a unique opportunity for UN Member States to discuss policies which address both the human rights and humanitarian concerns related to the protection of migrants as well as the criminal aspects of smuggling of migrants. 

We already have international instruments to guide this process. The UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air requires that States treat smuggled migrants humanely and preserve and protect their rights in accordance with international human rights law. It emphasises, amongst others, that States must provide smuggled migrants appropriate assistance.

The UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) further highlights the commitment of the international community to protect the human rights of migrants and to respond to the needs of migrants in situations of vulnerability, taking a gender-responsive and child-sensitive approach and assisting, in particular, migrants who have been subjected to violence and abuse.

As States come together over the next days, on the occasion of the Commission, the UN Network on Migration calls on governments to:

  • Fully implement the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants and the related commitments under international law, including the GCM, by taking measures to protect the rights of smuggled migrants while preventing and combatting the smuggling of migrants, as well as promote related cooperation among States Parties.
  • Recognize the vulnerability of smuggled migrants to abuse, violence, exploitation, including forced labour, and trafficking in persons.   
  • Provide targeted responses and protection measures for smuggled migrants, including establishing national mechanisms to adequately identify needs and ensure referrals to legal, medical and psychological services, and providing access to gender responsive, child-sensitive and affordable public and social services, such as health care as well as social and economic protection measures. 
  • Reinforce data collection and analysis on the impact of crises, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, on smuggling of migrants’ routes and trends, to support regional and international cooperation to curb this crime.
  • Open or diversify accessible channels for safe, orderly and regular migration, including for the purposes of family reunification, labour migration, education opportunities, and humanitarian admission schemes, to reduce the demand for smugglers’ services.
  • Improve the exchange of information, data and analysis, including on the methods and routes used by organized criminal groups involved in trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, in accordance with data protection and privacy laws between States.

As the world continues to cope with the socio-economic and health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, let us not forget the impact of organized crime on migration.

People who need to move from desperate situations have not and will not be deterred by a virus.

The United Nations Network on Migration calls upon all countries to counter the smuggling of migrants while abiding by their international obligations to protect the lives and safety of migrants so that the COVID-19 crisis does not become a smuggling of migrants crisis.   


The United Nations Network on Migration was established to ensure effective, timely and coordinated system-wide support to Member States in their implementation, follow-up and review of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. While the Network’s mandate is focused on migration, States are called to also implement these recommendations to refugees and asylum-seekers and to protect the human rights of everyone equally, regardless of migration status.

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Sonya Yee
Tel: (+43) 1 26060-4990

UN Network on Migration (secretariat)
Florence Kim +41797480395


*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).