Migrants and Refugees

“Smugglers Will Take You Anywhere”: A Wild Ride Through Trafficking in the Sahel

Call a friend with a connection, get a passport in 24 hours, and hand over some cash. That is what it takes to flee the fragile Sahel region of Africa, where smuggling networks exploit the desperation of people, leading in some cases to such deadly disasters as the recent shipwreck off the coast of Greece.

In this feature, part of a series exploring trafficking in the Sahel, UN News focuses on migrant smuggling.

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).


Main migrant smuggling routes in and towards Mali (2020/2021)

‘We will take you anywhere’

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.”

IOM/Monica Chiriac

Due to border closures decreed by governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across West Africa, at least 30,000 migrants were stranded at borders, according to the UN.

‘Cash-cash’ partnerships

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.


Migrants sit on mattresses laid on the floor at a detention centre located in Libya.

Ever greater risks

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 in 2012 of gold lacing the region, 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.

Stemming the flow

All the Sahel countries except Chad are party to the Protocol against smuggling of migrants, which supplements the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and have dedicated laws that are making progress, the report stated.

On the ground, operations are succeeding, UNODC reported. Among many examples cited in the report, a 2018 operation saw Nigerien police officers arrest ringleaders and dismantle a highly organized network suspected of having smuggled thousands of migrants to Spain, including through the Niger, Libya, and Algeria.

To build on these achievements, UNODC recommended actions States can take to tackle migrant smuggling, address the root causes, combat corruption, and create local job opportunities. The agency also suggested that counter-smuggling policies include development and human rights approaches.

© UNICEF/Juan Haro

A young migrant from Niger is being accommodated in a UN-supported camp in Burkina Faso.

Uprooting the causes

For many UN agencies and Sahelian nations, cooperation is key. Ongoing International Office for Migration (IOM) efforts include boosting livelihoods for returning migrants and forging new partnerships, including a recent agreement with the G5 Sahel Force, a multinational mission aimed at stabilizing the region.

“For IOM, regional cooperation is essential to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration and respond effectively to challenges,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino.

The new agreement provided an opportunity for tailored, joint approaches that address the complex drivers of conflict, instability, and forced displacement, he said, adding that “seeking such solutions will stand as a stepping stone in our overall collaborative frameworks toward improving conditions for populations in the Sahel.”

© Sibylle Desjardins / IOM

A Mauritanian veil produced traditionally, in shop run by a migrant returnee.

Meanwhile, UNISS continues working with all UN entities and partner nations on such efforts as the Generation Unlimited Sahel and helping Sahelians support their families, said Mr. Dieye, emphasizing that the current situation remains “extremely worrisome”.

“It will require a collective response,” he said. “No one country can deal with it alone. I think this has to land on the lap of the international community. After all, it is an international crime.”

What’s the difference between migrant smuggling and human trafficking?

Migrant smuggling and human trafficking are two distinct but often interconnected crimes, according to UNODC.

  • While human trafficking aims to exploit a person, who may or may not be a migrant, the purpose of smuggling is, by definition, to make profits from facilitating illegal border crossing.
  • Human trafficking can take place within the victim’s home country or in another country.
  • Migrant smuggling always happens across national borders.
  • Some migrants might start their journey by agreeing to be smuggled into a country illegally, but end up as victims of human trafficking when they are deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation later in the process, for example being forced to work for no or very little money to pay for their transportation.
  • Criminals may both smuggle and traffic people, employing the same routes and methods of transporting them.
  • Smuggled migrants have no guarantee that those who smuggle them are not in fact human traffickers.
  • Learn more about how UNODC is working to stamp out migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

© IOM/Amanda Nero

Migrants as Messengers’ Volunteers in Senegal participated in a creative residency with Guy Régis Jr, a Haitian playwright and theatre director, and Fatoumata Bathily, a Senegalese filmmaker.



  1. It’s heartbreaking to see how smugglers continue to exploit the vulnerable situation in the Sahel region. Action must be taken to prevent further tragedies like the recent shipwreck. The UN’s efforts are crucial in addressing this complex issue.

  2. Could these smuggling networks operate without the involvement of corrupt officials or law enforcement?

    1. Smuggling networks could not function effectively without the complicity of corrupt officials or law enforcement. It’s a complex web of collaboration that enables these criminal operations to thrive in the Sahel region.

  3. It’s truly alarming how easily people can fall prey to these smuggling networks in the Sahel region. The dire situation created by armed violence and climate shocks is only exacerbating the vulnerability of individuals seeking a way out. Awareness and action are crucial to prevent further tragedies like the recent shipwreck off Greece.

  4. Smugglers will take you anywhere. It’s truly disheartening to see the exploitation of vulnerable people in the Sahel region, with individuals risking their lives in search of safety. The international community must take immediate and decisive action to address this crisis.

  5. I believe that the exploitation of vulnerable people by smuggling networks is a grave issue that urgently needs to be addressed. The conditions in the Sahel region have led to a state of desperation, driving individuals to take dangerous risks in hopes of a better future. The recent shipwreck tragedy serves as a painful reminder of the human cost of this illicit activity.

  6. It’s truly terrifying how easily smugglers exploit the vulnerabilities of people in the Sahel region. Desperate situations lead to desperate measures, and it’s heartbreaking to see the consequences of these actions. We must work together to address the root causes that drive individuals to take such risks in search of safety and a better life.

  7. It’s truly appalling to see how smugglers exploit the vulnerabilities of people in the Sahel region. The ease at which they can traffic individuals is alarming and requires immediate attention from authorities.

  8. Smugglers will take you anywhere for the right price. It’s a perilous journey that preys on the vulnerabilities of those seeking a way out of the chaos in the Sahel region.

  9. It’s truly horrifying to see how the fragile Sahel region is being exploited by smugglers, leading to such tragic incidents like the recent shipwreck off Greece. The desperation of people is being taken advantage of, and it’s a stark reminder of the dangers faced by migrants seeking better lives.

  10. Do smugglers target specific groups of people in the Sahel region, or do they take anyone willing to pay?

  11. Can anyone clarify how authorities are addressing the root causes of migrant smuggling in the Sahel region?

  12. Smugglers will take you anywhere – it’s a scary reality of the Sahel region. The exploitation of people’s desperation not only endangers lives but also fuels a cycle of criminal activity. It’s crucial to address the root causes driving individuals to seek such risky alternatives for survival.

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