Covid-19: Migrant smugglers are profiting from travel restrictions
Updated: Sep 24
In early 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the world have imposed travel restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
On 18 March, the EU sealed its external borders to anyone from outside the bloc.
Thus, restrictive measures like airport closures, nationwide lockdowns and border closures stalled migratory movements.
According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, “the number of detections of illegal border crossings on Europe’s main migratory routes fell by 85 %” from March to April 2020.
It can therefore be seen that in March, irregular migration considerably diminished.
However, despite travel and movement restrictions, migrant smuggling by land and sea continues around the world, and in ever more perilous conditions.
Indeed, migrant smuggling networks have not stopped their activities despite a very significant decline in trafficking.
These networks have well thought-out strategies and know how to take advantage of crises in order to increase their profits and ensure the continuity of their activities.
Furthermore, several factors encourage migrants to take the paths of irregular migration.
Conflicts, violence, dangerous and inhumane conditions continue to drive people to flee and take the paths of migration.
Migrants are still travelling through key African land migration routes particularly in smuggling hubs in the Sahel region and southwards from the Horn of Africa to South Africa.
Besides, nor has the threat of COVID-19 stopped the ongoing conflict in Libya. The country is the main crossing point for African migrants to the EU.
Before the conflict, many West Africans migrated to Libya to find work. However, today, with the war and intensification of the fighting, many of them try to leave the country and reach Europe.
In Libya, migrants also face mass joblessness caused by an economic decline due to the Covid-19 health crisis. Many of them lost their jobs as a result of lockdown measures and curfew, which encouraged them to try their luck in crossing the Mediterranean to reach what they believe to be the “European Eldorado”.
Thus, the current situation does not deter people from migrating to Europe.
Smugglers are promoting alternatives
Faced with this situation, people smugglers are promoting alternatives that are often more dangerous.
In a new report, EU law enforcement agency Europol has warned that “the coronavirus pandemic is already changing migrant smuggling and trafficking”.
How do the smugglers proceed to continue their traffic?
As air travelled stopped during some months, smugglers have started to take riskier routes or use more dangerous means of transport.
According to the author of the Europol report, “small boats are increasingly being used to cross river borders”.
In addition, in order to cross land borders, migrants are being hidden in trucks, freight vehicles and cargo trains, mostly in the western Balkans and the English Channel.
The UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) explains that despite the lockdown in the European countries, the smuggling of migrant along the western and central Mediterranean route continues because of the continued conflicts in the region. However, “the flow along the Eastern Mediterranean route decreased, most likely affected by containment measures along the route”.
Regarding the price of the journey, in the context of the health crisis linked to the COVID-19, the operating risks for smugglers increase. As a result, migrants have to pay higher prices for smuggling services.