Pandemic measures likely to lead to increase in migrant smuggling

COVID-19 travel restrictions are not stopping people fleeing conflict, human rights abuses, violence and dangerous living conditions.

Existing wars, conflicts, persecutions and extreme poverty, and now the potential impact of pandemic-related restrictions, economic downturn and asymmetric recovery will increase the smuggling of desperate migrants in search of a better life.  Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade, reports 

COVID-19 travel restrictions are not stopping people fleeing conflict, human rights abuses, violence and dangerous living conditions, while the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to lead to an increase in smuggling of migrants and trafficking in person flows from the most affected countries to more affluent destinations, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Across the Mediterranean, Sub Saharan African, North African, Middle Eastern and Asian migrants and refugees are caught between the need to flee conflicts and poverty, dangerous open sea waters, the reduced search and rescue operation and the risk of COVID-19 transmission in absence of basic health and hygiene conditions.

The living conditions of migrants and refugees en route and in refugee camps were of great concern for decades before the COVID-19 crisis. The diffusion of the pandemic and its consequences will likely endanger the life of these people even further.

Despite the lockdown in the European countries and stringent mobility restrictions, the smuggling of migrants along the Western and Central Mediterranean smuggling routes continues not least because of the continued conflicts in the region. The flow along the Eastern Mediterranean route decreased, most likely affected by containment measures along the route.

The closure of land, sea and air borders, however, may result in an increase smuggling of migrants. 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 human trafficking.

In addition, the global economic downturn bringing along a sharp increase in unemployment rates is likely to increase cross-border trafficking in persons from countries experiencing long-lasting drops in employment.

The same trend could be observed during the Global Financial Crisis during 2007-2010, when trafficking victims from countries particularly affected by prolonged high unemployment rates were increasingly detected in countries with a faster recovery.

The economic consequences of the lookdown measures put in pace to reduce the diffusion of the virus will likely result in losing jobs and increasing poverty in a large segment of population in many countries. As it has happened in the past, this will increase the risks for this people to be targeted by traffickers.

Image credit: Nicolas Economou /

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more