As nations around the world grapple with the people smuggling trade, vital questions beg answers. How many criminals are involved in smuggling? Who are they? How many desperate people are smuggled each year? And how many lives are lost along the way?
Waves of desperate people are slipping across international borders every year and smugglers are making billions from an industry built on human misery.
The secretive nature of this dark and deadly trade means experts can provide only an educated estimate of the profits it generates for the criminals involved.
But the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) best assessment is that it’s worth a staggering $US10 billion a year.
“It could even be more,” says Frank Laczko, the director of the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin.
Laczko is a global leader in migration research and despairs about what the world still doesn’t know: how many people are engaged in smuggling, how many people are smuggled each year, and how many migrants are dying during their journeys.
The several thousand deaths the IOM documents each year is presumed to be just a fraction of the true figure.
Smugglers’ customers are all trying to escape something: the war in Syria; political oppression and arbitrary detention in Iran; religious persecution in Myanmar; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and, most commonly of all, difficult lives in poor and poverty stricken countries.
With the aid of smugglers they embark on dangerous and often deadly journeys that range in cost from a few hundred dollars, to many thousands.
African migrants fleeing violence and hunger make perilous dessert crossings on foot to reach lawless Libya, where they wait to cross the Mediterranean on decrepit boats that have carried thousands upon thousands before them to their deaths.
Asylum seekers from war-ravaged Syria hand what money they have left to smugglers who escort them to the Turkish border, despite the high likelihood that they’ll be caught, and possibly shot at, by increasingly vigilant Turkish guards.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who’ve already fled violence and persecution in Myanmar, wait in squalid camps in Bangladesh for the next chance to pay a smuggler to reach India, Nepal or Pakistan.
Central Americans determined to flee violence and poverty in their homelands are still paying smugglers to slip from Mexico into the United States, albeit in far fewer numbers after a concerted crackdown by the US Border Patrol.
Investigators say smugglers are typically part of loosely organised networks that have a vast geographic reach and players responsible for very specific tasks.
They are recruiters who scout for customers. They are forgers who specialise in fake passports and birth certificates.
They are inn-keepers who house the smuggled during their clandestine journeys. They are drivers and guides who escort migrants to the borders they will cross.
They are corrupt border officers who take a share of the profit to let people in.
But like any booming industry, the smuggling trade is evolving and with vast profits to be had, there is evidence pointing to the growing role of transnational, organised crime groups in some regions, including from Mexico to the United States.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says groups that were once active only on specific routes, or in specific regions, are expanding into new markets.
“Some have merged or formed cooperative relationships, expanding their geographical reach and range of criminal activities. For some crime groups, migrants are viewed simply as one of many commodities to be smuggled along with drugs and firearms for instance,” it says.
Observers also point to the escalating brutality of smugglers.
Earlier this year, the UN’s children’s program, Unicef, said women and children fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa were being routinely beaten, raped and starved in unofficial detention centres in Libya, controlled by militia involved in the smuggling trade.
Unicef said the centres were essentially prisons, where people were held to ransom, and coerced into prostitution and other work, with young girls even forced to have contraceptive injections so they would not fall pregnant.
ARE DESTINATION COUNTRIES FEEDING THE BEAST?
The response of many countries facing an influx of people, who arrive with or without the help of smugglers, has been to dramatically ramp up their border protection efforts.