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Research Findings on Migrant Smuggling in Southeast Asia

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The recent report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has brought forward alarming numbers associated with migrant smuggling in Southeast Asia.

Jakarta, IO – The recent report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has brought forward alarming numbers associated with migrant smuggling in Southeast Asia. According to the new research, every year, Southeast Asia experiences tens of thousands of migrants smuggled due to violence, corruption, and a lack of regular travel choices available to them mainly due to lack of travel documentation. 

As per the report both within and outside Southeast Asia, central states of origin and destination for the smuggling of migrants include Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Whereas, when migration from Southeast Asian nations to all parts of the world is taken into account, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar have the most populations living overseas. Malaysia is the country with the second-highest number of migrants from other Southeast Asian nations, Thailand being first host with highest number of migrant. 

The act of facilitating an irregular entry into a country where the migrant is not a national or resident for financial or other material benefit is known as migrant smuggling. The offenders operating this extremely lucrative enterprise take advantage of the opportunity presented by people’s need or desire to flee ascending out of not just poverty and unemployment but also natural disasters, conflicts, or persecution. 

According to report, the data concludes that those involved in this business varies from individual actors, loosely linked criminals as well as organized groups of affiliated criminals. Moreover, smuggling of migrants is generally a desperate attempt to find opportunity, security, or freedom from oppression, corruption, or danger of damage rather than a free or voluntary decision. It has been observed that refugees from less-developed part of the world such as Somalia, Myanmar mainly Rohingya’s and war-torn Afghanistan generally lack documentation and travel IDs which makes them think that smuggling would be an easier option for than rather than going through a regular migration process. Due to this obstruction both in their home countries or the states where they initially arrived, they face difficulties in traveling and have few options for stability, safety, and economic and educational opportunities therefore they easily fall prey to these smugglers which eventually results in being their only or “least bad” option for seeking workable solution and protection internationally. 

Another aspect that the report highlights deals with the reason that influences these refugees’ decision to flee and take help from the smugglers largely including climate-related problems, including droughts, floods, fluctuating temperatures, animal diseases, and crop diseases which drastically reduce productivity levels and causes major economic losses to the people. One more interning fact presented in the report says that in contrast to being aggressively solicited by smugglers, 69% of incidents involve refugees, migrants, or their friends and relatives initiating contact with the smugglers rather than the other way around. 

The research further reconnoiters that corruption acts as both enabler and driver in migrant smuggling in the region as the report explains that most people smuggled by these groups and individuals ended up giving money, gifts, or favors in return for the services. It has been estimated that on average people paid US $2,380 per person as smuggling fees, though the sum varied widely. The study continues by examining the various land, sea, and air smuggling routes used in the area. 

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The report also put forward different abuses encountered by the smuggled refugees and migrants, as three out of every four smuggled people reported having been subjected to abuse in some way while traveling. The abuse was inflicted either by criminal organizations and gangs, the military, police, smugglers, or by border guards. Most of the people smuggled from and to Southeast Asia get exposed to forced labor by the smugglers as well as employers as they lack documentary evidence of their jobs. 

The report also makes an interesting observation about the use of Social media by both smugglers and refugees. It is observed that rarely is social media the first place a person contacts smugglers. Only 13% of those looking for smuggling services used social media, while 87% of those seeking services did so by phone or in person. Moreover, People who are trafficked are at risk of being compelled to work as slaves by employers who may be unrelated to the traffickers but may profit from their illegal immigration status. The report presents an alarming situation and requires a global crackdown on this smuggling activity.


Noureen Akhtar, is a Ph.D. Scholar (SPIR-QAU) and has worked on various public policy issues as a Policy Consultant in the National Security Division (NSD), Prime Minister Office (PMO). Currently, she works in Islamabad Policy Research Institution (IPRI) as a Policy/ Research Consultant and Editor at Stratheia.

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