How COVID-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America

How COVID-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact migrant smuggling and cross-border  trafficking in persons to Europe and North America

How COVID-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America


The unprecedented crisis that COVID-19 has suddenly unleashed upon the world is affecting all aspects of society and is likely to have an effect on the routes and characteristics of both regular and irregular migration. Smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons will also be affected in certain ways by the crisis. Many factors shape the dynamics of these two criminal phenomena, from the international political and security landscape to macro socio-economic dynamics and national law enforcement capacity – all of which have been affected by the global pandemic. The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, and of the measures adopted by governments to contain it, differ across the globe, and the effects of these measures on smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons are likely to vary from country to country and from region to region.

This Research Brief analyses possible scenarios of how smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons are likely to be affected by the COVID-19 crisis along mixed migration routes to two important destination regions: North America and Europe.

One of the major consequences of the pandemic is the economic recession resulting from the lockdown measures governments have put in place to contain the diffusion of the virus. This paper draws on the dynamics observed during other global economic downturns, such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, to assess how the COVID-19-induced recession may affect smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons in the medium to long term. The research also reviews available information on current patterns during the COVID-19 lockdown measures and mobility restrictions, and on drivers of migration, as a way to assess possible fluctuations of trendsin smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons in the near future.

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to make smuggling of migrants riskier and more expensive for people fleeing persecution, violence and conflict.

COVID-19-related restrictions seem to have a different impact on smuggling of migrants who are fleeing conflict and persecution, as compared to other types of migratory movement. Migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, for instance, is affected by conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Since the onset of the pandemic, no significant changes have been observed in the smuggling of migrants along the Western Mediterranean route from Morocco to Spain, when compared to the same period during 2019. A sharp decrease is visible in the use of the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece, though this is likely linked to migration management negotiations between Turkey and the European Union. On the other hand, a significant increase has been detected on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy since the beginning of this year, in connection with the conflict situation in Libya.

This suggests that COVID-19 travel and movement restrictions are not stopping the movement of people fleeing conflict, violence, and dangerous and inhumane conditions (as currently experienced by many refugees and migrants in Libya), who generally have no option but to use migrant smugglers. The closure of land, sea and air borders may increase smuggling of migrants, because people have an even greater need for the services of smugglers in order to cross borders. Closures and restrictions also often result in the use of more risky routes and conditions, and higher prices for smuggling services, exposing migrants and refugees to increased abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Smugglers may also benefit from a situation of increased demand by raising the prices of their services.

Although the data are not yet available, a similar context in terms of COVID-19 restrictions increasing vulnerabilities to abuse and trafficking may affect people fleeing high rates of violence in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America and fleeing the crisis in Venezuela. With fewer options for movement, desperation can lead to abuse, exploitation, trafficking and the need to use more costly and more risky smuggling services.

Unemployment and economic downturn are likely to result in more cases of human trafficking

The combination of a global economic downturn and intensified migration restrictions creates a tension between increased interest among potential migrants in labor migration and limited options for regular migration. This may increase the demand for smuggling services and the risks of being trafficked. Incidents of deprivation of liberty for extortion, abuse, violence and trafficking affecting refugees and migrants stranded en route have been widely documented in many parts of the world in recent years and may increase as a result of the consequences the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic is forcing governments to shutdown their productive systems; processing plants, farms, factories and offices are closed to reduce the risks of COVID-19 diffusion among employees. This is resulting in a global recession and increasing levels of unemployment 1 . The sharp increase in unemployment rates resulting already seen in many parts of the world is likely to increase crossborder trafficking in persons from countries experiencing the fastest and longest-lasting drops in employment. This trend was observed during the Global Financial Crisis during 2007-2010, when trafficking victims from some countries particularly affected by prolonged high unemployment rates were increasingly detected in other parts of the world. As an example, the graph below shows the parallel trends of the unemployment rate in Bulgaria and the number of Bulgarian victims of trafficking in persons identified in the Netherlands. A similar pattern can be determined for Hungary during the years 1998-2016. On the other hand, during the years of the financial crisis and its aftermath in 2008- 2013, countries like Czechia, for example, saw lower unemployment rates and the fallout lasted for a shorter period. No similar increases in the identification of Czech victims of trafficking were observed.

The widespread nature of this current economic crisis, together with increased control at borders due to COVID-19, are likely to reduce irregular migratory movement and related migrant smuggling in the short term. But in the medium to long term, an unequal economic recovery will increase labour migration, and without increased possibilities for regular migration this is likely to increase smuggling of migrants towards the countries that have a faster recovery.

The graph in figure 9 illustrates the example of irregular economic migration from Honduras to the United States during the 2008 financial crisis. While at the start of the crisis, irregular migration journeys from Honduras to the Unites States were relatively limited, it started to increase with the worsening of employment opportunities in Honduras following the crisis, peaking at more than 106,000 Hondurans apprehended for irregular entry at the US border in 2015. To make a comparison with El Salvador, a country that recovered from the crisis at faster pace compared to Honduras, a reduction in apprehensions of Salvadorians at the US border has been registered since 2014 (about 80,000 apprehensions in 2014; 42,000 in 2018).

The potential human rights impacts of COVID-19-related restrictions on travel, movement and economic activities – and of the consequent economic downturn – on smuggling of migrants and cross-border trafficking in persons may be severe, if they are not mitigated by investments in job creation and economic recovery across both developed and developing countries. The consequences in terms of increased crime, abuse, violence, exploitation and trafficking can be ameliorated by ensuring that providing avenues for regular migration journeys for refugees and migrants, and for regular immigration status in destination countries, is a key element of post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

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