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What Drives Demand For Migrant And Refugee Smuggling In Southeast Asia? New Research From UNODC

Bangkok (Thailand), 26 March 2024 - Tens of thousands of people are smuggled every year in Southeast Asia because of conflict, corruption and a lack of options for regular travel, according to new research launched today by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“Migrant smuggling is often not a free or voluntary choice, but an act of desperation, to seek security, safety or opportunity, or freedom from threat of harm, oppression or corruption,” says Masood Karimipour, Regional Representative of UNODC in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The data shows that smugglers may be individual actors, loosely connected criminals, or organized groups. Bringing them to justice is an important part of protecting the people seeking safety and a better life.”

Refugees from countries like Myanmar (particularly Rohingya people), Afghanistan and Somalia frequently lack travel or ID documents. They face a lack of prospects for stability, safety and economic and educational opportunities in their countries of origin or in the countries they arrived to first (e.g., Bangladesh, Islamic Republic of Iran, or Ethiopia). Smugglers, the research notes, can be their only or ‘least bad’ option for individuals seeking international protection or a sustainable solution.

25% of the 4,785 smuggled refugees and migrants surveyed said that climate-related issues — including flooding, storms, drought, extreme temperatures or livestock or crop disease — influenced their decision to migrate and use smugglers.

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Corruption both enables and drives migrant smuggling in the region, the research found. 25% of smuggled people surveyed reported giving officials a gift, money or a favour in return for a service. Corruption also drives demand for migrant smuggling, because people think that they need smugglers to help them deal with corrupt authorities.

The research goes on to explore the different smuggling routes taken within the region by land, sea and air. The modi operandi of smugglers are examined, with the research showing that refugees and migrants or their family and friends initiate contact with the smugglers in 69% of cases, rather than being actively approached by smugglers.

People paid, on average, US $2,380 per person in smuggling fees in the region, though the sums varied widely.

Finally, the research study analyses the different types of abuses experienced by smuggled migrants and refugees. It finds that three out of four smuggled people surveyed experienced some form of abuse during their journeys, perpetrated by military, police, smugglers, border guards or criminal gangs.

The full research study, including interactive and static maps and graphs, infographics, case studies and research methodology, can be accessed at:

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