Crossing borders, crossing lines


…unveilling the grim reality of human trafficking and smuggling in global mobility

The migration industry – sometimes referred to as the migration market or migration management – encompasses a complex system of actors, processes and economic activities that facilitate and regulate the movement of people across national and international borders (IOM, 2009). It operates as a response to the increasing demand for international mobility driven by a variety of factors, including economic disparities, political instability and social upheaval. The purpose or reason for migrating determines the type of migration embarked on by the migrant or aspirant.

Labour Migration is for individuals seeking employment opportunities or economic prospects abroad. They are mostly termed economic migrants. It can be regular or irregular, with many low-skilled labourers taking irregular routes to seek work in countries with labour shortages (Salt, 2000).

Refugees and Asylum Seekers are people fleeing conflict, persecution or other humanitarian crises who seek refuge in other countries. The migration industry may assist them in accessing legal pathways to asylum (Salt & Stein, 1997).

Understanding the migration industry requires examining its key components, the actors involved and methods employed.

One central actor in this Industry is the migrant. Migrants are the individuals or groups seeking to move from one country to another. They do so for various reasons, including better economic opportunities, family reunification, asylum from persecution or simply the desire for a better life (IOM, 2009).

The other players are Migration Agents, Brokers or Consultants. They act as intermediaries between migrants and relevant authorities. They often provide information, documentation assistance, and even logistics support. These individuals or entities offer advice on visa applications, work permits and legal routes for migration. They can offer information and education on the legal pathways and requirements for migration. They help migrants make informed decisions. These services ensure that migrants can navigate the legal migration process. They may charge fees for their services and provide guidance through the complex legal processes.

Employers and Recruiters are also key players in this industry.  In the case of labour migration, employers and recruiters may facilitate job placement, handle contracts and arrange for migrant workers to travel to their new workplaces, especially for low-skilled or seasonal work. They may collaborate with labour agencies or brokers.

Furthermore, there are the Coyotes or Smugglers – primarily associated with irregular migration – who specialise in facilitating the illegal entry of migrants across borders. They often work within a network of collaborators. These smugglers or coyotes often provide transportation and logistics for migrants; including organising passage, securing counterfeit or altered documents and evading border controls.

The migration industry operates within a complex and ever-evolving legal and regulatory framework that varies from one country to another. To move or not to move comes with the interplay of factors and questions to be answered. In the pursuit of a better life, migrants often find themselves at the intersection of consensual border crossing and exploitation. Where aspirations take the best part of the balance, most migration aspirants must decide which pathway to choose. In terms of legality, the Migration Pathways embarked on can be Regular Migration and Irregular Migration.


Regular Migration involves the legal and orderly movement of people across borders, often facilitated through visas, work permits and family reunification programmes. It is generally regulated and monitored by national immigration authorities.

Irregular Migration is characterised by unauthorised entry or residence in a destination country. Migrants may employ smugglers to navigate this challenging route, often involving dangerous border crossings.

It is critical to acknowledge that while this industry can provide valuable assistance to migrants, it also harbours unscrupulous actors who exploit vulnerable individuals. These include human traffickers, Coyotes or Smugglers who assist, usually, in the irregular entry of people into national states (Jandl, 2018). They can engage in coercion, deception and abuse to control their victims. However, within this context, when can we say a migrant has been smuggled or trafficked?

In the intricate world of migration, the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ are often used interchangeably – yet they represent distinct and crucially different phenomena. While both involve the movement of people across borders, the motivations, methods and consequences diverge significantly. Delving into the nuances of smuggling and trafficking reveals a complex interplay within international frameworks.

Understanding Smuggling

Smuggling, at its core, refers to the facilitation of illegal entry across borders (UNODC, 2018). This could involve aiding individuals in bypassing immigration controls, evading border security or providing fraudulent documents. Smuggling is often driven by economic motivations, whereby migrants willingly pay smugglers to help them reach a destination for better opportunities. The key element here is the transaction’s consensual nature; migrants are paying for a service to reach a destination.

The Smuggler’s Path Metaphor

Imagine a winding path through a dense forest – the smuggler’s route. Migrants embark on this journey willingly, guided by a smuggler who promises them passage to a land of opportunities. They pay a fee for this guidance, aware that they are navigating a route not sanctioned by immigration laws. However, the metaphorical forest holds dangers, including legal consequences and the risk of exploitation.


Key Elements of Human Smuggling

  • Voluntary Consent: Smuggled individuals willingly seek out the services of smugglers and agree to pay for their assistance in crossing borders illegally.
  • Crossing Borders: Smuggling primarily focuses on the act of illegally moving individuals across international borders.
  • Profit from the Fee: Smugglers profit from fees paid by the individuals seeking their assistance.

Unravelling trafficking

Contrastingly, human trafficking involves coercion, deception and exploitation (UNODC, 2018). Victims of trafficking often find themselves ensnared in a web of abuse, with traffickers exerting control over them through force, fraud or other means. Unlike smuggling, trafficking does not necessarily involve crossing international borders – it can occur within a country’s borders or transnationally.

The Trafficker’s Snare Metaphor

Envision a snare hidden in plain sight – the trafficker’s trap. Victims are enticed under false pretences, believing they are heading toward a better life. However, once ensnared their autonomy is stripped away, and they become subject to exploitation. The trap tightens, with traffickers exerting control over every aspect of their lives.

Human trafficking is a grave violation of human rights, and is defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons through force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation” (UNODC, 2018). Exploitation in this context includes forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage and more.

Key Elements of Human Trafficking

  • Acts of Trafficking: Human trafficking involves recruiting, transporting, transferring and harbouring individuals for the purpose of exploitation. These actions can occur both domestically and across international borders.
  • Means of Trafficking: The means used by traffickers to control their victims can include threats, force, deception, coercion and other forms of abusing power or vulnerability.
  • Purpose of Exploitation: The primary goal of human traffickers is to exploit their victims for financial gain or material benefits. This exploitation can take various forms, such as forced labour or sexual exploitation.

The Blurred Lines

What makes the distinction between smuggling and trafficking challenging is the blurred line that often exists between them. The metaphorical forest and snare can converge, turning a smuggling scenario into a trafficking nightmare. Migrants, initially consenting to a smuggler’s guidance, may find themselves coerced or deceived along the way, morphing their journey into one of exploitation. In other words, the relationship between these two crimes is quite fluid, subject to intent of the intermediary.

International Frameworks and Legal Definitions

International protocols and legal instruments play a crucial role in differentiating between smuggling and trafficking. These include:

  • United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants: Defines smuggling as the procurement, for financial gain, of a person’s illegal entry into a state of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.
  • Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons: Defines trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force, deception, coercion or abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation.
  • International Labour Organisation’s Indicators of Forced Labour: Provide indicators such as abuse of vulnerability, deception and restriction of movement, to identify situations of forced labour within trafficking scenarios.

Application of Legal Frameworks: The Distinction and Overlap

When smuggling turns into trafficking, it signifies the shift from a consensual, albeit illegal, arrangement to a coercive and exploitative situation. This transformation raises complex legal and ethical challenges, and the application of international legal frameworks becomes crucial in addressing nuances of the situation.

Legal systems must navigate the fine line between smuggling and trafficking. While distinct, these crimes can overlap – demanding a nuanced approach. Authorities need to assess whether the initial smuggling arrangement evolved into a situation involving coercion or exploitation.

Any act of smuggling is addressed under the United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, emphasising financial gain through illegal entry. However, when coercion or exploitation emerges, the protocol’s focus shifts to the trafficker’s intent and the victim’s vulnerability.

In this regard, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons comes into play. This protocol comprehensively addresses trafficking, recognising the different means (force, fraud coercion) and purposes (exploitation) involved. If migrants are subjected to such conditions after initially consenting to smuggling, the legal response turns toward prosecuting traffickers and safeguarding victims.


Therefore, the application of legal frameworks will shift in focus from the consensual nature of border crossing to the protection of victims and prosecution of those responsible for exploitation. International legal frameworks prioritise the rights and well-being of victims, acknowledging that they might have started their journey consensually but ended up in exploitative conditions.

The complexities demand a collaborative, nuanced and victim-centred approach within the framework of international protocols and legal instruments. However, the task lies in finding evidence to back such victims.

Key Dynamics, Challenges and Solutions

  • Identifying Exploitation: Recognising when smuggling transitions into trafficking requires thorough investigation. Authorities need to identify indicators of exploitation, such as restricted freedom, abusive working conditions or coercive control (Zimmerman et al., 2006).
  • Cross-Border Collaboration: Since these situations often involve transnational movement, effective collaboration between countries becomes vital (Zimmerman et al., 2006). Shared intelligence, coordinated efforts and extradition agreements facilitate a comprehensive response.
  • Supporting Victims: Victims of trafficking, even if they initially consented to smuggling, require protection and support (Gallagher, 2010). Legal frameworks prioritise their rights, including access to legal representation, counselling and assistance in returning to their home country if desired.
  • Prosecuting Traffickers: Legal measures should target the traffickers who exploit migrants (Gallagher, 2010). Charges related to trafficking, coercion and exploitation replace charges associated with smuggling.

The migration industry responds dynamically to global demands for international mobility, leading to a nuanced landscape where the distinction between smuggling and trafficking becomes paramount. As we navigate these complexities, it is essential to recognise evolving dynamics and address the consequences of smuggling transforming into trafficking within international legal frameworks (UNODC, 2018).


Distinguishing between human trafficking and human smuggling is crucial, as it affects the legal and moral responses required to combat these heinous crimes. It is essential to raise awareness about the differences between these crimes to better address and combat them. Legal and protective measures should be implemented to safeguard the rights and well-being of victims, and to hold traffickers accountable for their actions.

By understanding these distinctions, we can work toward a world where vulnerable individuals are no longer subjected to the horrors of human trafficking or smuggling.

The narrative revealed by this evolution from smuggling to trafficking underscores vulnerabilities within the migration industry. It calls for heightened awareness, international cooperation and a comprehensive legal response to protect those who seek opportunities but fall prey to exploitative practices.


While acknowledging the challenges posed by irregular migration, it becomes imperative to emphasise the importance of regular migration channels. Legal, orderly movement not only ensures the safety and well-being of migrants but also upholds the integrity of international borders. By promoting regular migration, nations contribute to a system that respects the rights of individuals, prevents exploitation and fosters global collaboration.

As we strive for a world wherein individuals can pursue their aspirations without falling victim to criminal enterprises, the imperative lies in strengthening legal pathways for migration. Regular migration channels, guided by international protocols, not only mitigate the risks associated with irregular practices but also uphold the principles of human rights and dignity.


  • United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants
  • Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons
  • International Labour Organisation’s Indicators of Forced Labour
  • (2018). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Model Law against Trafficking in Persons.”
  • Salt, J., & Stein, J. (1997). Migration as a business: The case of trafficking. International Migration, 35(4), 467-494.
  • Jandl, M. (2018). Human Trafficking and Migration: Concepts, Actors, and Victim Protection. Springer.
  • Salt, J. (2000). Trafficking and Human Smuggling: A European Perspective. International Migration, 38(3), 31-56.
  • Zimmerman, C., Hossain, M., Yun, K., Roche, B., Morison, L., & Watts, C. (2006). Stolen Smiles: A Summary Report on the Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Women and Adolescents Trafficked in Europe. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  • Gallagher, A. T. (2010). The International Law of Human Trafficking. Cambridge University Press.
  • International Organisation for Migration (IOM). (2009). World Migration Report 2008: Managing Labour Mobility in the Evolving Global Economy. IOM.


Hannah is a University of Ghana, Centre for Migration Studies graduate. She has also participated in migration programmes at Oxford Brookes University and Justus Liebig University in Germany. Her research interests centre on migrants in precarious situations, integration, and migration governance.


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