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With the number of forcefully displaced people hitting a record 68.5 million in 2017, experts say a lack of legal support and funding has enabled a multibillion-dollar criminal network to thrive.
According to a June study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, about 2.5 million migrants were smuggled across borders — an operation worth about $5.5 billion to $7 billion in 2016 alone. As could be expected, the countries most affected are in proximity to the conflict zones creating waves of global refugees.
“Neighboring countries shoulder the entire burden of the situation,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman at the United Nations Refugee Agency, adding that those countries often lack sufficient funding to deal with the mass influx of people, leading to a growth in human trafficking and smuggling.
Many of the countries absorbing large flows of refugees do not have comprehensive policies or simply lack resources to deal with the influx. That means those migrants often become isolated and desperate for the means to survive: Promises of a better future from transnational organized criminal groups and traffickers become more attractive as time passes.
"Refugees are especially vulnerable as they typically move under desperate situations," Benjamin Smith, Southeast Asian program coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime told CNBC. "This creates a situation where transnational crime organizations can come in and take advantage of them through exploitation or trafficking."
About 1 million migrants entered the European Union in 2015 alone, with nine out of 10 of them paying smugglers to help them cross borders, according to a joint report by the Interpol and Europol. Many unaccompanied minors are also sold into slavery or forced prostitution.
Smuggling, though, is at the heart of the criminal enterprises surrounding global refugee crises.
“In the absence of legal channels, boat smugglers remain the only alternative. These smugglers practically have a monopoly on transporting people across the Mediterranean,” said Pal Nesse, senior advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
One way to manage the problem is to provide legal alternatives and pathways for refugees, which would remove the need for illegal networks.
Currently, the unofficial channels for movement are much quicker and cheaper than the legal avenues, which can frequently be complex, cumbersome and inaccessible. Authorities should crack down on smuggling networks to make their ventures more expensive, to disincentivize people from using those pathways, Smith said.
The increasingly tense subject of international migration has led to many countries adopting closed policies for dealing with the crisis. That provides opportunities for some criminal activities to flourish, said Keane Shum, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency regional office for Southeast Asia.
With tighter immigration policies, legal channels for migrants become more cumbersome. That pushes more people toward smugglers who offer a much quicker and lower cost way of entering a country, Smith explained.
“We advocate for open policies such that the local economy can flourish,” Shum said, explaining that host countries can benefit by allowing refugees to legally and freely integrate into the economy, which enhances their lives and removes dependency on humanitarian assistance.
Borders and walls can restrict movement but it is unlikely to stop refugees from crossing borders today, Edwards said: “People tend to figure out ways to get around it.”