1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Migrant smugglers: Who are they?

June 29, 2023

Around 90% of those who cross the EU's external borders illegally use migrant smugglers. How do they operate and why do migrants turn to them despite horrific accidents?

Migrants from Sub-Saharan countries on a boat after they were rescued.
Migrants turn to human smugglers, despite the risk of drowning, as they fear they have no other chance to enter the EUImage: MINDS Global Spotlight/AP/Santi Palacios/picture alliance

Europol, the EU agency for law enforcement, has estimated that 90% of those who cross the EU's external borders illegally do so with the assistance of migrant smugglers, either for the whole journey or for part of it. "It is difficult to arrive at exact figures on the irregular flows, given their hidden nature," the European Parliament stated in a 2021 report. 

While there is no doubt that human smugglers, also called migrant smugglers, run thriving businesses, the report added that it's also worth noting the majority of non-EU immigrants migrate to the EU via legal channels.

But how do these human, or migrant, smugglers operate across the Mediterranean Sea? And who are the people who rely on them for the journey they hope is their gateway to a better life?

What is human smuggling?

"Smuggling requires the movement across an international border, and people will have paid for the journey," Lucia Bird, senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an independent civil society group in Switzerland, told DW. "Trafficking is against the will of the person and can also take place within one country [or] region."

Migrants in orange swim vests on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea
If there is a lull in business or bad weather, migrant smugglers can offer discountsImage: Joan Mateu Parra/AP/dpa

She said migrants are "often subject to significant abuse and exploitation at the hands of their smugglers on the migration journey," adding that "arrangements that begin as a willing transaction between a migrant and smuggler can end in trafficking." However, she said, in most cases most people who use the services of a smuggler to illegally cross a border do so successfully.

Around 281 million people were considered to be international migrants in 2021, according to the World Migration Report, which is updated every two years — some 3.6% of the world's population. 

How do smugglers operate?

Human smugglers are basically local service providers for human movement. For this, smugglers maintain networks that include locals who spread the word in remote villages, others who help aspiring migrants get to the closest departure points and those who specialize in forging papers, as well as the boats and necessary crew.

"Migrant smugglers offer solutions to natural or political barriers that are hard or impossible to master alone, like crossing the Mediterranean Sea, or accessing visas with fraudulent documents," said Bird.

"The reason these networks are successful, particularly in Tunisia and Libya, is because they operate in an environment that is often sympathetic to the reasons for migration," said Sami Hamdi, director of the London-based global risk and intelligence firm International Interest.

He added that although local officials are certainly bribed into turning a blind eye, there is also widespread sympathy from these officials toward the plight of those seeking to escape what they consider a "miserable" existence, as they often hail from the same poor socioeconomic class.

Who migrates with the help of smugglers?

"People from all walks of life migrate with smugglers," said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council that oversees the work of humanitarian organizations in over 30 countries affected by conflict and disaster.

Among the migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa are, in particular, many families "who basically throw themselves into the Mediterranean in the hope to reach the other shore because they have no other hope than seeing their children better off than the life they have had themselves, and of course, many young men," he told DW.

Migrants seek answers after Greece boat disaster

Indeed, various statistics show that male migrants slightly outnumber female migrants. "It is a terribly strenuous journey from Yemen or from Somalia just to make it to the Mediterranean," said Egeland.

"Local families often come together to raise money collectively to pay a smuggler to facilitate the journey for a young family member who might later send money back, or even legally facilitate the relocation of the family later on," said Hamdi, who added that he has met families in North Africa who had helped their family members make the dangerous crossing.

"When I would remark on the high risk of death, the overwhelmingly common response was that they were already dead while being alive and breathing," he said.

Why do people migrate?

While Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution," not every migrant qualifies for asylum under the current legal frameworks and asylum definitions. However, this is a process that starts once the migrant has arrived in the European Union, for example, by crossing the Mediterranean, and not before.

"People who have no or very limited choices about how to access a life in dignity and safety do consider very dangerous and treacherous journeys through smuggling rings to get out as there are no legal and safe pathways," said Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. She sees voluntary movements, such as those by migrants who turn to smugglers, "as not so voluntary at heart."

"No one generally wants to leave their home but when you're desperate, you will turn to any opportunity to leave," she said.

A boat full of migrants shortly before it sinks, people jump into the water
The number of drowned migrants is unknown, as there are no complete lists or statistics, but experts estimate that thousands have died in 2023 alone Image: MINDS Global Spotlight/Italian Navy/picture alliance

This view is echoed by Egeland. "Human smugglers are ruthless businesspeople that prey upon the desperation of other people, and as long as there is no legal pathways for people to reach Europe, or for that matter, those who are in Central America to reach the United States, there will be always those who would like to earn money from making this possible," he said.

How much does it cost to use human smugglers?

Human smuggling is driven by supply and demand, and the degree of risk. "It is a services market," said Bird, of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. "The price goes up if there is a lot of law enforcement on the way." However, when there is a lull in business, prices sink and smugglers tend to offer incentives like group discounts, she added.

For the route between North Africa and Europe's closest coasts in Italy and Greece, prices range from €3,000 to €10,000 (up to $10,000), and sometimes more, said Hamdi. "That includes the journey to the North African coast, and the boat crossing," he added.

However, as migrants often do not have the full funds required, they are often abused, exploited and sometimes taken into slavery as part of repaying the debt, he told DW. Some are forced to work off their debt, while others do odd jobs in border towns to repay debt and save up for the next leg of their journey.

Migrants stuck at US-Canada border struggle to get help

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.