Corruption and Migration : A Criminal , Transnational Network

Ellen Wasylina
28 April 2016
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Having just attended the OECD Integrity forum in Paris on April 19, 2016, the panel on “Exploiting Tragedy : Corruption and the Refugee crisis” cristalized many parameters in this never-ending human wave of migrants heading to Europe for a better, peaceful, prosperous life.


Despite all the international organisations created after WWII, Civil society organisations, grassroots actions, as was discussed on April 20-22 in Istanbul, human trafficking is “a global issue”, according to Louise Shelley.(1)


So how is trafficking related to corruption?  Corruption is linked to kleptocratic societies, from which people tend to flee, especially after the Arab Spring, that was supposed to bring peace, security and democracy, it has instead resulted in uprisings, killings, lynching, power struggles and general chaos and conflict, both domestically, regionally and on an international scale.  The promise of the Arab Spring has wilted and has become an Arab winter, meaning not a warm, humanistic, nearly bloodless movements, that we saw in Eastern Europe, with the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.(2)


According to EUROPOL, approximately 40,000 people are involved in smuggling operations to Europe, through diverse criminal networks, corruption being central to organised crime.  Before 2015, there were approximately 250,000 people migrating to the EU a year; but since 2015 more than one million people have crossed borders, land and sea, to get to Europe.  And this is a lucrative business, as 90% of immigrants are facilitated through illegal networks, according to Vaseileios Ntlakalis.(3)  At €5,000 to €10,000 per person per trip, it is not difficult to imagine the enormous sums of money feeding the traffickers/smugglers.  And this money is not going into the economy as it feeds the underground economy and contributes to the black economy.  Migrants sell their belongings, their family members, their organs, and someone else bonds the money, if they can not pay upfront.  The result is the migrant becomes an indentured servant, who does not contribute to the formal economy, but perpetuates and is imbedded in the underground economy with all the undeniable consequences imaginable.  And this facilitation can be defined as a criminal activity that is not only national, but transnational in nature.


These loose networks comprised of different nationalities exploit hotels, local businesses and facilitate criminal activity, with corruption being the basis of this activity, in the form of bribery, be it in the public or the private sector, especially where public authorities are lax and not stringent on enforcing laws and are highly corruptible.Morgane Nicot(4) explained that there is a profit to be made on smuggling migrants, which involves bribing public officials, crossing borders illegally without the proper visas, providing false documents, to get visas and passports.  And refugee camps are prime targets for these criminal networks, where there is a direct collusion with laws enforcement officials.


And all of this criminal activity is possible, facilitated because there are no legal opportunities to migrate and to find economic opportunities, especially now that most EU land borders are closed, the Balkan Crime route (Afghanistan to Europe) is open for business.  And the migrants are vulnerable, don’t have legal status and cannot report abuse to officials, not being in compliance themselves.  And it is not a temporary phenomenon, as migrants and their facilitators become inventive in financing their passage, especially Syrians, who have the means to pay and are not asylum seekers vs Eritreans. Sadly, many migrants that have been trafficked, end up becoming part of the criminal network that facilitated their arrival in Europe, as we saw in the Brussels attack.


Last summer, when the borders were open, the migrants did not need a smuggler to cross borders, they were free to move across borders. Now that several European countries, (the first one being Hungary) have closed their borders and the Schengen system seems to be dissolved, at least temporarily, smugglers moved in to drive the criminal opportunities of organised crime.


So how do we reduce demand?  By opening up safe avenues of movement, by taking Syrians directly from the camps and bringing them to Europe.  Peter Tinti, a senior research fellow at Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, said that it is a result of EU policies, or the failure thereof, that has created the environment of illicit smuggling for asylum seekers : it's a question of supply and demand!  Migrant smugglers are responding to a demand and they have invested heavily in their activity and will find a way to perpetuate their commerce.  Irregular demand can be reduced by the EU having clear rules and regulations on what happens to the migrants upon their arrival: they should be processed, identified and asylum seekers should formulate their demand.



Melissa Siegel, associate professor and head of Migration Stuies at UNU-MERIT, listed several very precise  cause/effect relationships between corruption and migration, corruption:


    1) facilitates illegal migration
    2) enables protection of refugees
    3) can impede development in the country of origin of the migrant : remittances can be targeted
    4) impede return of migration to home country
    5) stimulate the desire to migrate : morality drain
    6) transnational ties of the elites
    7) upend social structures and impede social mobility
    8) undermine assistance to refugees

The bottom line : corruption has pushed people to emigrate, as it also plays a prime role in facilitating the movement of refugees.  But what are the real consequences of corruption on migration, their effect on integration efforts or economic development?


We can conclude that corruption and development are negatively linked, while migration and development are positively linked.


It is time to look at the real consequences of the effect of corruption and the role that it plays in the migration process, which not only creates a brain drain but a morality drain in emerging economies, as conflict swells and spreads across the Middle East and Africa, from which migrants/refugees flee; but to also recognise the positive link between migration and development and the remittances which migrants send back to their home countries, which reached $516 billion in 2016 (5) which contributes to alleviating poverty and promoting prosperity.







1. Louis Shelley, Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair, Director, Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and University Professor in the School of Policy, Government  and International Affairs.


2. Wasylina, Ellen, Ukraine : prémices de guerre froide en Europe? , Editions Harmattan, 2014.


3. Vasileios Ntiakalis, Police Major, Hellenic Police


4. Morgane Nicot, Crime prévention and Criminal Justice Officer, Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, UNODC


5. : This year’s remittance flows to developing countries will be an increase of 7.8 percent over the 2013 volume of $404 billion, rising to $516 billion in 2016, according to revised projections from the latest issue of the brief. Global remittances, including those to high-income countries, are estimated at $581 billion this year, from $542 billion in 2013, rising to $681 billion in 2016.

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