Efforts to counter the COVID-19 pandemic have seen unprecedented restrictions on movement being imposed in many countries, both at borders and within countries. Some communities and policymakers have adopted increasingly hostile attitudes towards migrants, whom they perceive as contagion risks. Barriers to movement are therefore not only state-imposed but can also be community led.

While these measures are reducing migration and the smuggling business in many regions in the short term, they are also heightening migrant-protection risks.
Such measures are also likely to swell the profits of the smuggling industry in the medium term. COVID-19, and the measures introduced to control it are likely to increase the drivers for movement; the vulnerability of migrants at any point in their journey; the militarization of borders; and the further reduction of safe and legal routes.

As the policy environment becomes more hostile to migration, the operating risks and prices of smuggling look set to rise. This may drive out operators with a lower risk appetite and attract organized-crime groups, who are more likely to exploit migrants for ever greater profit.

To avoid emerging into a post-pandemic landscape characterized by a dramatically more severe migrant crisis and a more lucrative and professionalized smuggling market controlled by organized crime, it is key to monitor and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on migrants and refugees throughout the pandemic.

Smuggling in the time of Covid-19: The impact of the pandemic on human-smuggling dynamics and migrant-protection risks

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Lucia Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo

Lucia is a Senior Analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Lucia researches and writes on a broad range of organised crime types internationally, however her focus to date has been on human smuggling, human trafficking, drug trafficking and policy, and cyber crime. She is a practising lawyer in the data protection and cyber security space. Previously, Lucia worked as legal and policy adviser to the Planning and Development Department of the Punjab Government, Pakistan, and before that held the same role at the Ministry of Finance, Ghana. During this time Lucia was affiliated with Oxford Policy Management, a development consultancy headquartered in the UK. Prior to this Lucia worked as a corporate lawyer in London, where she is currently based.

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