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Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants

Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants

Trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants are serious crimes entailing multiple violations of human rights. Trafficking in persons is the deliberate exploitation of human beings and is considered as modern slavery, taking the form of forced labour, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, prostitution, forced begging, sale of organs, bonded labour or debt bondage and the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. This is a phenomenon of global concern because it affects the majority of the countries in the world. Women, children and vulnerable people are especially exposed to traffickers, who mainly prey on the weaker members of societies, including economic and climate migrants, and asylum seekers.

Trafficking in persons is frequently associated with smuggling of migrants, even though differences exist between the two phenomena. Smuggling is always a transnational crime, defined as the illegal entry (in breach of national laws of immigration) of a migrant in exchange for a financial or other material benefit. However, migrants may be exploited during the travel or after having crossed a State’s border. In this way migrants can become victims of trafficking against their will (although trafficking does not necessarily imply that the victim enters another state). Another difference is that while the profit of smuggling derives from the transportation of people, profits for trafficking come from the exploitation of victims. Trafficking victims are deprived of their dignity and fundamental rights, such as liberty, personal security and, in the most severe cases, their life. Moreover, trafficking in persons is also linked to other forms of organized crime and, according to the United Nations, it is considered to be the second largest source of illicit profit after the drugs trade.

Given the hidden nature of this modern form of slavery, exact figures about it are difficult to quantify. This makes the development of effective preventive and counter strategies more challenging. Countering trafficking in persons requires a coordinated and double-pronged effort - as states must operate on both the national and transnational levels - which addresses various different aspects of the problem. States have the responsibility to protect victims and their families from unscrupulous exploiters. States have a duty to establish effective mechanisms for the identification and assistance of victims and for the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators and corrupt facilitators. But states also have the responsibility to reduce the population’s general vulnerability to trafficking and smuggling—vulnerability that is mainly generated by the lack of livelihood, lack of security and the presence of violence. Lastly, States should work to counter misinformation and put in place strategies to prevent and counter the wall of shame and silence around the phenomena by building communities’ resilience and facilitating employment opportunities for victims.

Over the past decade, UNICRI has been strongly involved in the implementation of various applied-research and technical assistance projects in the field of counter-trafficking in persons and child exploitation. Several programmes have been carried out in the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, the Philippines, and Ukraine. In addition, UNICRI has been working on the issue of trafficking in persons in peace support operation areas since 2002.

UNICRI aims to assist Member States to prevent and prosecute trafficking and smuggling related crimes, to identify and support victims and to reduce the vulnerability of at risk populations. Activities are carried out in close cooperation with governments, international organizations and civil society organizations. UNICRI seeks and encourages the proactive participation and involvement of local communities at all levels of interventions.

In order to enhance existing mechanisms and increase the transfer of knowledge and coordination among stakeholders, in 2016 UNICRI conducted an assessment of local and international initiatives to counter trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants. The objective of the research was to identify the activities implemented in North Africa (with specific focus on Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt) and especially those activities focusing on the needs of women and unaccompanied minors. The results showed that whilst significant resources are invested to prevent and punish perpetrators, too little is being done to provide effective protection for potential victims of trafficking and for unaccompanied or separated minors, another vulnerable segment of the population who often rely on smugglers to facilitate their journey. The study also highlighted the need to increase regional partnership - among countries of origin, transit, and destination on both sides of the Mediterranean - and enhance information sharing on regional and national rapid response mechanisms which address the challenges posed by trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants. The findings were discussed in December 2016 during a meeting with  government representatives from transit and receiving countries, national and international experts, representatives from the European Union, non-governmental organizations and representatives from Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.


UNICRI’s strategy on countering trafficking and smuggling aims at addressing:

  • The need for an increased level of knowledge on the challenges connected to the current migration movements;
  • The need to build institutional capacity of Member States to effectively prevent and respond to the related traditional and emerging crimes and relevant human rights violations;
  • The need for more coordinated efforts among origin, transit and destination countries.

UNICRI’s action on trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants falls under the overall UNICRI strategic roadmap contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular to the advancement of Goal 16, dedicated to justice and institutional reforms. In this respect, UNICRI has been working to support Member States in establishing and maintaining peace and security, protecting human rights, preventing criminal offences, as well as assisting in the identification of those factors that may feed into radicalization and violent extremism.

In this perspective, trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants can be addressed by diminishing the windows of opportunity offered to organized crime groups by weak institutional capabilities, which allow them to freely operate and thrive on victims’ exploitation. Reducing victimization and marginalization, supporting reforms to re-establish the rule of law and promoting access to justice for the most marginalized can be essential for countering organized crime. These steps are also key for creating the conditions for sustainable development, as they increase access to resources and opportunities, fight corruption, build government’s trust, protect children and promote gender empowerment.

Promoting an understanding of the migration phenomena from a criminal justice perspective can also contribute to changing the narrative on migration. Such an approach could highlight the need to promote legal and effective channels for migrants, the contribution of migrants to the economic and demographic development of receiving countries, and the underlining risks to security, political stability and democracy of growing xenophobia and racism towards migrants and refugees.