Migrant smugglers have been reaping rich dividends over the past decade in the Sahel, where armed violence, terrorist attacks, and climate shocks have displaced three million people and triggered growing numbers of others to flee, according to a new threat assessment report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
External threats like the crisis in Sudan are creating a “snowball effect” on the region, Mar Dieye, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Coordinator in the Sahel, told UN News.
“Not stopping this fire that started from Sudan and then spilled over in Chad and other regions could be an international disaster that will trigger a lot of more migrants,” said Mr. Dieye, who also heads the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS).
Right now, Mr. Dieye said, most trafficking occurs at porous ungoverned border areas where the State is “extremely weak”.
The latest UNODC report identified other drivers alongside solutions buttressed by interviews with migrants and the criminals smuggling them, who revealed how the cross-border crime is unfolding in towns across the Sahel.
Many interviewees said smugglers were cheaper and quicker than regular migration, the report found. In Mali, where monthly income averages $74, a passport costs nearly $100.
In Niger, a key informant said authorities can take three to four months to process official documentation.
“But with us, if you want, we will take you anywhere,” the informant said.
If a passport is needed, a smuggler in Mali said in the report, “I will have it in 24 hours.”
The report pointed to corruption as both a motivator to use smugglers and a key enabler for the crime.
Migrant smugglers could earn around $1,400 a month, or 20 times the average income in Burkina Faso, according to UNODC.
“Lucky smugglers” can earn as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per month, a smuggler in Niger said in the report.
The degree of collaboration with public officials is so entrenched, a smuggler in Mali explained, that he “has no fear of punishment from the authorities”, according to the report.
“I have never been worried by the authorities,” the smuggler said. “We are in a cash-cash partnership.”
Recalling instances when arriving at police checkpoints, a key informant interviewed in Niger shared his experience.
“You go to see them and give them their envelope, but, if you don’t know anyone in the team, you are obliged to take the migrants out and put them on motorcycles to bypass the checkpoint,” the informant added.
Increased demand from men, women, and children seeking to escape worsening violence and the consequent rising food insecurity has fuelled the cross-border crime, according to UNODC.
Since the discovery of gold lacing in the region in 2020, UNODC said research points to mining sites, where women are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and men are forced into indentured labour.
Smuggling routes have also become more clandestine and diverse in attempts to evade growing efforts by security forces, exposing refugees and migrants to even greater risks and dangers, according to the agency.