Image Source:
May 14, 2020
REGION: Europe and Eurasia, Western Hemisphere

In “How Covid-19 Restrictions and the Economic Consequences are Likely to Impact Migrant Smuggling and Cross-Border Trafficking in Persons to Europe and North America,” the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) uses past and present migration data to analyze the consequences of Covid-19 on human trafficking and smuggling, and proposes approaches governments can use to keep migrants safe while still managing the public health crisis.

Migrants have reacted differently to immigration restrictions implemented due to the pandemic. In Europe, there are three different routes that migrants travel from North Africa and Turkey to Europe. While migration along the Western route is similar to last year, the number of migrants has decreased significantly along the Eastern route. It is unclear whether the reduced numbers are due to restrictions related to Covid-19. On the other hand, the Central Mediterranean route, which leads from Libya and Tunisia to Italy, has seen a significant increase in the number of migrants from the previous year, likely because of growing conflict in Libya. The United States has reported migration from Central America and Mexico continuing at rates comparable to previous years. Violence in many Central American countries likely contributes to these numbers.

According to UNODC, the impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent economic crisis will affect both regular and irregular migration, but irregular migrants are a cause of great concern. Irregular migration leads to an increased risk of trafficking in persons under normal circumstances; pandemic restrictions render it even more likely that smugglers will resort to such tactics as extortion, trafficking, and abuse of irregular migrants, because the risk is greater.

To prevent these migrants from being subject to abuse or trafficking, the authors theorize that authorities can use data regarding migration patterns during and after the 2008 financial crisis to understand how migrants are moving. This data can be helpful in predicting how the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis might affect migration. This data showed that in the United States, higher unemployment rates correlated with fewer irregular migrants in the short term. In the long term, however the financial crisis led to higher unemployment rates in many Central American countries, and migrants again began to cross the U.S. border in earnest. Countries in the European Union showed similar patterns of migration during the 2008 financial crisis, but Europe also reports many migrants fleeing violence. Thus, European countries must take ongoing regional conflicts into consideration when planning for future migration patterns.

Using this data, the authors conclude that the potential for harm to migrants has increased because the immigration restrictions related to Covid-19 create additional difficulties for migrants. Additionally, data from the 2008 financial crisis shows that prolonged unemployment led to more trafficking of persons. Thus, economic opportunities must be created in both developed and developing countries to prevent migrants from being extorted and trafficked. In addition, countries must make sure migrants have access to safe immigration options.

The authors propose the following steps to protect vulnerable migrants:

  • Countries must ensure the public health measures they implement in response to Covid-19 do not negatively impact vulnerable migrants and refugees. Data collection and analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking is needed to inform every region of the world about best practices in combatting both the pandemic and human trafficking.
  • Judicial processes should remain available to protect the rights of everyone, but most importantly the vulnerable. Technology should be used where available to aid in this effort.
  • Countries must be flexible to continue providing services to vulnerable communities

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

How COVID-19 Restrictions and the Economic Consequences Are Likely to Impact Migrant Smuggling and Cross-border Trafficking in Persons to Europe and North America

Highlighted Publications

East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia
Image Source: Transparency International

Global Corruption Barometer Asia 2020: Citizens' Views and Experiences of Corruption

Western Hemisphere
Image Source: Transparency International

Global Corruption Barometer: Latin America & the Caribbean 2019 Citizens’ Views and Experiences of Corruption

Western Hemisphere

United Nations Convention against Corruption - Implementation Review Executive Summary - Guyana

Image Source: USAID

Rule of Law Practitioner's Guide