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New Project to Counter Migrant Smuggling

Vienna (Austria) 2 November 2021 – A two-year project to combat organized crime groups that smuggle migrants over multiple continents to North America is underway in thirteen countries.

The STARSOM initiative will support States along the main smuggling routes to work together to respond to migrant smuggling while protecting the lives and upholding the rights of the smuggled migrants.

STARSOM is led by crime prevention and criminal justice experts of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) with the support of the Canadian Government’s  Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP).

“Migrant smuggling is a global and profitable crime with a high demand and a low risk of detection for the criminals involved,” says Panagiotis Papadimitriou, the leader of UNODC’s Technical Cooperation Team, which coordinates the STARSOM initiative.

“People resort to smugglers when they need to escape poverty, natural disaster, conflict or persecution or are seeking employment and education opportunities but do not have the options to migrate legally,” he adds.  

The new project focusses on a popular smuggling route that starts in Asia, transits the Gulf States, West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and then heads towards the United States and Canada.

“The Government of Canada is proud to work diligently with both domestic law enforcement agencies and international partners like UNODC to combat international criminal organizations that seek to profit from the desperate situations of women, men and children, and especially those most vulnerable,” says James K. Hill, Canada’s Ambassador to Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua. 

Ambassador Hill adds: “With migrant smuggling, we need to shift the focus from the migrants themselves to the people who are organizing their illegal movement. We should not criminalise the migrants, but rather, seek to ways to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of migrants who are in precarious situations.”

Migrants often face long and arduous journeys and must trust the smugglers with their money and their lives. Every year thousands of migrants die. They suffocate in containers, perish at sea, or die of thirst in deserts.  

Recently, 126 migrants from Ghana, Nepal and Haiti were discovered in an abandoned shipping container in Guatemala after crossing the border with Honduras. Authorities suspect they had paid smugglers to take them to the United States.

“Currently, there is a lack of knowledge about the way criminal groups organize their smuggling operations along these transregional routes and little cooperation in responding to this crime between authorities in affected States,” says UNODC’s Mr. Papadimitriou.

“Many border control and immigration officials, police, prosecutors and judges are poorly trained and equipped to effectively investigate, and prosecute transregional migrant smuggling,” he adds.  

UNODC experts will be training practitioners to detect, investigate and prosecute cases of migrant smuggling and facilitating cooperation between judicial authorities on an international level.

While the ultimate goal is to dismantle the smuggling networks behind this profitable and dangerous crime and secure convictions for those responsible, STARSOM also aims to ensure that smuggled migrants are treated fairly and humanely by the authorities.   

Smuggled migrants are not only at risk of being abused by the smuggling networks but are also vulnerable to becoming victims of another form of organized crime – human trafficking.

In 2019, a group of men from Nepal who had paid smugglers to take them to North America  were found a year later being exploited by human traffickers in Malawi, in southern Africa, after travelling through six different countries.

The STARSOM project will also emphasize the importance of considering gender when responding to migrant smuggling. “There needs to be a greater understanding of the different ways women, men, boys and girls as well as LGBTQIA persons experience migrant smuggling,” explains UNODC’s Panagiotis Papadimitriou. 

“A gender-responsive approach will enable countries to identify specific protection needs and provide support measures that consider the diversity of people on the move.”

Furthermore, the implementation of the primary international legal instruments for preventing and tackling the smuggling of migrants – The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its supplementing Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants is a key component of the initiative. 

STARSOM is funded by the Government of Canada through its Anti-Crime Building Program (ACCBP).

Further information

Strengthening Transregional Action and Responses Against the Smuggling of Migrants

Smuggling of Migrants

UNODC Highlights Lack of Justice for Migrants Abused on Smuggling Routes



This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


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