UQ Migrant Smuggling Working Group

The smuggling of migrants is a significant and worldwide phenomenon that involves complex issues concerning human rights, criminal justice, State sovereignty, and international relations. Smuggling of migrants — or people smuggling as it is sometimes referred to — involves the ‘procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a country of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident’ (Article 3(a) of the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air).

Virtually every country in the world is affected by the smuggling of migrants, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination. Smuggling involves a myriad of means and methods and often follows complex and circuitous routes.  Law enforcement agencies in Europe estimate that 90% of irregular migrants, many of them asylum seekers, who have travelled to Europe in recent years have been assisted by smugglers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), approximately 80% of irregular cross-border migration in Asia is assisted by smugglers. Although accurate data on migrant smuggling is not available, and, due to its clandestine nature, difficult to collect, suggestions that several million people are smuggled worldwide each year are plausible and reasonable. 

Globally, the smuggling of migrants is subject to controversial debate, featuring prominently in news media and political contests. To some, migrant smugglers are seen as ruthless criminals who prey on the vulnerability of irregular migrants. Others see smugglers as Samaritans who act in aid of refugees and those fleeing war, discrimination, and poverty. For refugees and other migrants lacking regular avenues of migration, smugglers frequently offer the only way to reach safety and pursue their hope of a better life abroad.

Restrictions placed on the free movements of people play into the hands of migrant smugglers who exploit differences in national laws and legal systems. Taking advantage of those willing or forced to migrate, migrant smugglers create illegal ways of migration by using covert and overt methods to transport people, supplying false documents, or harbouring irregular migrants.  During their journeys, smuggled migrants are often vulnerable to life-threatening risks and exploitation. Thousands of migrants have suffocated in containers, perished in deserts, or drowned at sea. 

While the smuggling of migrants is receiving more attention than at any time in recent history, the phenomenon remains not well understood and too often characterised by simplistic analysis and a high degree of imprecision and distortion. Data documenting the level of migrant smuggling, the profile of smuggled migrants and migrant smugglers is almost non-existing.  The causes and characteristics of migrant smuggling, the methods and routes, and the factors that drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers are only poorly documented and insufficiently analysed. 

In 2011, the University of Queensland’s (UQ) TC Beirne School of Law in conjunction with the School of Political Science & International Studies set up a research group to undertake comprehensive analysis of the smuggling of migrants.  This website documents the objectives, activities and research findings of the UQ Migrant Smuggling Working Group.  This work complements the research conducted by the UQ Trafficking in Persons Working Group, established in 2008.