Beyond the limelight: A selective overview of lesser-known irregular migration routes in the Global South

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2021 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Chris Horwood is a migration specialist and co-director of Ravenstone Consult.

Source (adapted) and credit: UNODC, Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants, 2018, page 11


Most analysis and media coverage of mixed migration focuses on movements along well-used routes that depart from, and arrive at, well-documented hubs.

The “anxious politics” that has surrounded irregular migration, causing what  some  academics  describe as the “continuous exclusionary rhetoric of othering” through the increased “mediatization” and “mediation” of politics, is primarily evident in Europe, the United States and Australia. Policymakers, researchers, and journalists overwhelmingly focus on irregular movements along a small number of routes as the “great disruptors” that cause the most socio-political dilemmas in the Global North. Consequently, these routes and movements of refugees and migrants dominate the Global North-centric discourse even though mixed and irregular migration occurs—albeit often with less scrutiny—all over the world between and within every region.

Movements along these lesser-known routes are critical to the survival and livelihoods of millions of people who also face hardship, uncertainty, rights violations, and fatalities when they travel. Re-visiting the geographical scope of irregular migration with a focus on the Global South, this essay offers snapshots of less publicised irregular journeys, untold stories, and unchallenged rights violations. It reveals a more heterogenous global mixed migration story. Those moving often travel in smaller groups using less expected or obvious routes and towards less obvious destinations that may surprise even seasoned migration observers. Just as they do on the world’s better- known irregular migration routes, people smugglers often facilitate travel along those that are out of the limelight.

The Americas

Migration northward is extensively reported in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The magnetic lure of the United States and the latter’s battle to stem irregular migration through its southern border with Mexico is the dominant narrative of movement in the Americas. Migrant smuggling is a major feature of the subregion, as people attempt to bypass border controls using smugglers known locally as coyoteros and chilingueros. They face a variety of risks, including death, extortion, kidnapping, trafficking in persons, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and incarceration, torture, and environmental exposure. The presence of hardened drug cartels in Mexico has led to particularly brutal violence against and abuse of passing migrants. Unaccompanied children and families have become a permanent but relatively new feature of irregular migration flows, with about 54,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US-Mexican border in 2018.

Although irregular migration into the US by Mexicans— and the subsequent apprehension and deportation of many—is an established phenomenon that typically involves hundreds of thousands of people every year, the profiles of those taking this route are changing and there are new trends. Although a large proportion of movements involving continentals and extra-continentals are part of northbound networks that ultimately lead to the US and in some cases Canada, they are not the whole story.

The residence agreements adopted by the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR)—comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and   Venezuela—allow for high levels of licit intraregional labour migration, thereby reducing irregular migration. More recently there has been the well-documented movement  of over 5.6 million Venezuelans to neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. Nevertheless, there are important, less reported multi-directional migration routes and movements within South America, including from the Caribbean into South America, and from the mainland to Caribbean islands.

 The Northern Triangle

The politicised controversies of the migrant “caravans” in 2018 and 2019 led to relatively brief international media coverage of those, many of them families, moving northwards from Central America’s Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) through Mexico towards the US. Less covered was the fact that by 2018, an estimated 200,000-400,000 Central American migrants were being smuggled across Mexico towards and into the US every year, surpassing the number of Mexicans doing the same. The caravans were merely one aspect of this growing movement of people fleeing poverty, the impact of climate change, and violence, often at the hands of urban drugs gangs. In a shift from its more open policy announced at the start of 2019, and under US pressure, Mexico began detaining migrants from Central America in April 2019. However, amid rising economic opportunities in Mexico and harsher US immigration barriers, many migrants and asylum seekers from Central America now target Mexico as their preferred destination. After a pandemic-induced dip in 2020, migration into Mexico from the Northern Triangle started to increase again in early 2021.

Caribbean exodus

The Caribbean is not only a transit location for extra-continental migrants moving on to the US or South American states: many thousands of Caribbean nationals leave their countries each year (using smugglers or without facilitation), mainly also aiming to reach the US as well as South American countries. Territories such as Guyana, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, have high levels of emigration, but in absolute terms, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti have the largest diaspora communities: over a million emigrants each, with most living in the United States.15

The numbers of rights violations, reports of mistreatments, and deaths at sea from the active and multi-directional irregular movement associated with the Caribbean are remarkably low when compared with even short maritime journeys in Africa (see below). According to the Missing Migrants project, only three maritime deaths were recorded in the non-Cuba area of the Caribbean in the first seven months of 2021. Meanwhile, 63 deaths were recorded in the waters between Cuba and Florida, which is another major route for Cubans: over 80 percent of irregular Cuban migrants head for the US.

Around 60 percent of Haitian migrants try to enter the US but of the rest a significant proportion, since the 2010 earthquake, have taken long and convoluted journeys to Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Colombia. The most common route to Brazil for Haitians is through the Dominican Republic, and then Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, often with the help of smugglers. Not only is Brazil’s economy the largest in Latin America but the country also has had a progressive immigration policy that guaranteed basic rights such as access to healthcare and welfare benefits regardless of status. This made it a magnet for irregular migrants from all over the continent. A recent study on migration from Haiti cites an estimate of 47,000 Haitians having entered Brazil irregularly between 2011 and 2015. Migrants travelling by air from Asia and Africa also favour Brazil as their first point of arrival in South America. Reportedly, they usually spend several weeks or months there before continuing to Colombia, later entering Panama, and then crossing several or all the Central American countries and Mexico to attempt entry into the US. However, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 saw a reversal of Brazil’s pro-migration policies, the closing of borders during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the country’s withdrawal from the Global Compact for Migration.


Colombia, where five million people are internally displaced and which hosts some 1.7 million refugees, is another example of a transit and destination country for tens of thousands of irregular migrants. The northward journey through the Darien Gap, a perilous jungle straddling the Colombia-Panama border, is virtually impossible without coyote guidance and protection (from other gangs) and is not always successful, resulting in many people being stranded in Colombia.

Officials in Panama claimed it had recovered, to date, the remains of 53 people who had died while trying to cross the Darien Gap in 2021 – more than double averages from previous years.  Furthermore, they said more than 90,000 migrants and refugees, many of them Haitians, have moved through the Darien Gap this year as they attempt to reach Mexico and the US border. Thousands more (many Haitians) are grouping in Colombian coastal areas such as Necoclí waiting for boats to take them to locations to start their trek through the Gap.

Other continental and extra-continental irregular migrants choose Colombia as a destination country (Graphic 2 below illustrates the diversity of Asian and African irregular arrivals in an eight-month period in 2016). Between 2016 and 2021, Colombia has hosted increasing numbers of displaced Venezuelans, rising to 1.74 million in 2021, representing 31 percent of all Venezuelans who fled their country. More than half of them are undocumented and join the tens of thousands of other continental migrants who continue to move into Colombia irregularly.

Source (adapted) and credit: OAS and IOM, 2016 (citing data from national authorities)

Trinidad and Tobago

Bucking the Caribbean trend of out-migration, the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), with its relatively high level of development and employment opportunities (oil and gas) is a destination as well as a transit point for both regional and extra-regional migrants. The same porous borders that allow high levels of human smuggling (and some human trafficking) are also vulnerable to transnational organized crime networks and are of concern to government authorities. A third of all intra-Caribbean migrants reside in T&T. Irregular migrants from the Caribbean region and from Asia, in particular those lacking legal status, are at risk of forced labour in domestic service and the “hospitality sector”: “traffickers lure women and girls from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela with offers of employment, many via social media, and subject them to sex trafficking in brothels and clubs”.

For those using T&T as a transit location for onward migration to Canada, the US, and Europe, there are earning possibilities there to finance onward travel, and smugglers and fixers available to secure necessary false documentation. Most human smuggling into the country relies on a combination of air and sea routes. Most smuggled migrants detected in T&T are nationals of Colombia or Venezuela—Trinidad lies just 12 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela. The political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela prompted a sharp rise in the number of regular and irregular Venezuelans going to T&T; 60,000 were estimated to be there in May 2019, one of the highest per capita numbers of any host country.


Most media coverage and research about irregular migration from Africa focuses on routes from the Horn of Africa, West Africa, and Central Africa through the Sahara to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. As explored in detail below, the dominance of this focus obscures several important facts. First, most of those entering Libya regard it as a final destination because of the employment opportunities there. Second, there are many other routes from Africa to Europe. For example, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, and the (Spanish) Canary Islands just 100 kilometres off Morocco’s Atlantic coast have been transit/destination targets for many years, as has the French island territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. Third, the world’s busiest maritime route for migrants and asylum seekers does not cross the Mediterranean but runs from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula (notwithstanding anomalies during the Covid-19 pandemic). Fourth, more than half of the African nationals living in OECD countries originate from North Africa. Fifth, almost 75 percent of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa remain within the continent, a trend that has major demographic implications.

The map below illustrates the complexity and dynamism of this intra-African mobility. Some fifteen key migration corridors have been identified on the continent, including those running from Burkina Faso to Ivory Coast (used by 1.3 million people in 2017) and vice versa (0.5 million); from South Sudan to Uganda (0.9 million) and from Sudan to South Sudan (0.5 million), both mostly due to conflict-related forced migration; and from Mozambique to South Africa (0.7 million), linked to labour migration in the mining, farm and domestic work sectors.

Source (adapted) and credit: Africa Centre for Strategic Studies

Ceuta and Melilla

In the last decade or so, tens of thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers have made their way across the Sahara into Morocco in an effort to reach, and then breach, the heavily guarded and fortified barriers around the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Half tolerated by Moroccan authorities, their efforts are sometimes characterised by grouping close to the enclaves and simultaneously scaling their surrounding fences—like the 600 who forced access in January 2018, and the 1,000 who did so the following August. Some attempt to swim around enclaves’ fences that extend into the sea: 6,000 migrants entered Ceuta by sea in a single day in May 2021, prompting Spain to deploy troops. Also in 2021, 120 migrants scaled the fences around Melilla. Some of those who gain access to the enclaves are eventually taken to mainland Spain and released; others are returned to Morocco, often before being able to apply for asylum.

Cabo Verde

Since 2010, Cabo Verde has graduated from a lower- to a middle-income country, partly as a result of extensive emigration (which has taken place for centuries, and especially in the 20th). The Atlantic archipelago has benefitted from considerable amounts of remittance income, human and technical capital transfers, and return migration investments from the diaspora and returning migrants. The number of Cabo  Verdeans living abroad is estimated to be double the number of domestic residents (0.5 million), with most living in the US, Portugal (Cabo Verde’s colonial administrator until 1975), France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Previously, emigration predominantly took the form of regular labour migration and family reunification, but the tighter restrictions imposed by the EU and the US have left many Cabo Verdeans abroad in an irregular status, mainly because of visa overstays (rather than as a result of irregular maritime migration). The islands also attract a steady stream of migrants, mostly from West Africa and specifically Senegal, some 600 kilometres to the east. However, as Cabo Verde is a member of the Economic Community of West African States, which has a free movement protocol, labour migration is permitted. According to earlier research, the archipelago was also used as a stepping-stone for mainland Africans travelling with the help of smugglers to the Canary Islands.

Canary Islands

Since the 1990s, and with an uptick in recent years, West Africa migrants and asylum seekers have used boats to access Spain through the Canary Islands off the disputed territory of Western Sahara. More recently, the majority travel from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, and Mali. Almost half of the 41,000 arrivals by sea into Spain in 2020 were to the Canaries. The journey to the islands is long and dangerous and accidents and drownings are common, such as the El Hierro incident in April 2021. Between January 2020 and July 2021, some 750 migrants were reported to have died on the Atlantic route.


Mayotte, an overseas department of France comprising the two southeasternmost islands of the Comoros archipelago, sees high numbers of irregular migrants from the islands in the independent Union of the Comoros as well as from Madagascar. Reportedly, migrants from Madagascar and other countries use Mayotte as a transit location for onward travel. In a department said to feature France’s “leakiest border”, almost half of the population is estimated to consist of irregular migrants, a demographic mix that sometimes sparks social unrest and protests by the local population. Nearly three-quarters of births in 2017 were to irregular (mostly Comoran) migrants; in some cases these children will gain French citizenship when reach the age of majority.Many irregular migrants are deported when they reach Mayotte but the numbers of arrivals—and of deaths at sea—continue to grow. However, Mayotte, despite being a French territory, is not part of the EU’s 26-state Schengen Area, so migrants arriving there cannot automatically benefit from the area’s lack of internal border controls and just fly on to Europe without passports or visas.

Not surprisingly, Mayotte is an attractive magnet for citizens of the non-French Comoro islands, where poverty and unemployment are high. They travel using smugglers in overcrowded fishing boats often at night, across up to 230 kilometres of ocean. According to a report from the French Senate, between 1995 and 2012, some 7,000–10,000 people died in these crossings— around one percent of the total Comoros population. The Comorian authorities describe these waters as “the world’s largest marine cemetery”; in 2015 the governor of the Comoran island of Anjouan put the number of fatalities at 50,000.

Bab-el-Mandeb strait

Another perilous, if relatively short, sea crossing, used predominantly by Ethiopian and Somali migrants and asylum seekers heading mainly for Saudi Arabia and Oman, is the eastern route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The numbers using this route have been consistently higher than those of sub-Saharan migrants crossing the Mediterranean; IOM describes it as “the world’s busiest maritime migration route. Even though it has received extensive coverage over the past decade from journalists and through reports by NGOs, think tanks and international organisations, the general public and policymakers, especially in the Global North, are largely unaware of this route as the movements take place far away and out of sight. Despite the persistent insecurity, egregious rights violations, and other risks on this route, every year over the last decade approximately 100,000 migrants and asylum seekers (85-90 percent Ethiopian on average) make their way to coastal departure points in Djibouti and Somaliland, often with the help of smugglers. They then use other smugglers to cross the Bab-el Mandeb strait to Yemen and thence into Saudi Arabia to seek work, running a gauntlet of unscrupulous smugglers, brutal extortion gangs, abductions and trafficking, hostile authorities, the civil war in Yemen, and repeated cycles of mass deportation by Saudi authorities. In 2019, a reported 138,000 migrants used this eastern route but the impact of Covid-19 resulted in a steep decline in 2020 and 2021.This route also operates in the opposite direction, from Yemen to mainland Africa. It is so used, often with the help of smugglers, by Yemenis fleeing the civil war in their country and by Somalis and Ethiopians returning home due to the hardships in Yemen and especially during Covid months. Almost 13,000 African migrants were estimated to have travelled from Yemen to Djibouti along this route between May 2020 and April 2021.

Other terrestrial routes

Beyond these maritime routes there are journeys made within Africa by hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in multiple directions within and between regions. Some of this is reported by UNHCR as refugee displacement, but there are many other significant migrant routes, such as from West and Central Africa and the Horn of Africa towards southern African states such as Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia as alternatives to the previously most popular destination of South Africa itself. Migrants from South Asia travel to South Africa with the help of smugglers. A little-known, long, and convoluted route to the United States also involves South African and other African migration hubs: migrant smugglers and document-generating agents organise flights into South America, where migrants and refugees join multi-national groups going through South and Central America and Mexico with the aim of crossing into the US through its southern border.


As with the American and African continents, irregular movement in the vast Asia region is multi-directional, complex, and prolific. Much of it is absent from international media coverage or research, while relevant data tends to be scarce and fragmented. Stretching from Western Asia to the Far East, there are no simple directional movements but rather a plethora of short and long migration routes, often convoluted and often involving smugglers.

Extensively reported and well known is the huge refugee displacement from Syria to neighbouring countries, which host most of the 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees in 2021. The exodus has also led to onward secondary irregular movement for over a million Syrians, mostly heading for Europe, where many received refugee status.

In the Central Asia sub-region, refugees from Afghanistan have been hosted by neighbouring countries for at least three decades. Since 2002, nearly 5.3 million Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan but just over 2 million remain in Pakistan and Iran. Approximately 1.5 million Afghans live outside the region, mainly in OECD countries, and many initially arrived in their country of destination irregularly. The irregular movement of Afghans out of their region is less documented but remains relatively well-known and monitored by relevant   agencies and rights organisations—the movement primarily is westward through multiple countries, towards Turkey and Europe. Almost always their journeys involve multiple smugglers for different sections. This movement continues today and is likely to increase after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021—filling the power vacuum left by departing NATO and US troops. The extent of future migration and flight is not clear at the time of writing but expected to be significant and to re-ignite migration and asylum polemics in Europe and elsewhere.

Further east, the third well-publicised mass movement in Asia is the flight of Rohingya from persecution in Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they now number 800,000. Some Rohingya have travelled on from Bangladesh using smugglers towards Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Pacific.

Considering the size and complexity of other irregular movements in the Asia region, only a selection of thematic and geographic examples are highlighted below to represent the wider reality.

The Commonwealth of Independent States

The Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—all members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—are important transit countries for less-documented irregular migration and migrant smuggling from South, South-West, and East Asia to Europe. Most of the migrants and asylum seekers on these routes endure some of the world’s longest and most convoluted journeys. They include people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and further east, including Vietnam and China as well as the six CIS republics themselves and even some Africans. The precise volume and extent of this movement is not known but is considered significant and long-standing. In 2006, one analyst estimated that 300,000 irregular migrants use these diverse routes through Russia and the CIS every year.

Most people using these routes are aiming to access Europe and, after transiting Central Asia and the Russian Federation, many continue through the Ukraine and Belarus, from where they enter the European Union via Poland, Slovakia or Hungary. In the past, smaller groups travelled north after entering the Russian Federation, accessing the Nordic countries through Baltic states, but it is not known if this route is still used to any significant degree. Often using smugglers, migrants from Iran and Iraq reportedly travel to Azerbaijan, then continue to Georgia and also go through Russia, whereupon they head either to the Baltic countries and/or Belarus and Ukraine, and then into the European Union along the Eastern borders route, with some arriving in Lithuania. Rather than  moving  clandestinely,  migrants  using this route and from these countries use fraudulent documentation to cross borders.

Thailand and the Mekong sub-region

Thailand is a major economy in the Mekong sub-region and a significant magnet for people from its poorer neighbours, namely Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Most irregular movement is related to job opportunities, but some people on the move are fleeing persecution. Smugglers not only provide safe passage through unmanned border areas (often in jungles, mountainous areas or across the Mekong river) but also offer to set migrants up with jobs and accommodation. Irregular migration is a low-risk enterprise in term of detection, but human trafficking thrives in these conditions, with high numbers of victims coming from Thailand’s three neighbouring countries and many others, including Thailand itself.

As an illustration of its long-standing attraction, in 2013, UNODC estimated that more than 660,000 irregular migrants enter Thailand each year, 80 percent of whom were reckoned to have used smugglers. A significant proportion, but by no means all, come from neighbouring countries. Official Thai government figures in that year indicate that of this total an estimated 84,500 were from Myanmar, 60,500 from Cambodia and 42,000 from Laos. Although more recent figures are hard to come by, a 2016 study of over 1,800 migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam living in Malaysia and Thailand found that 74 percent of respondents had migrated through irregular means. Also, Thailand reported that from 2012 to 2016, between 190,000 and 240,000 people were detected attempting irregular entry. In 2019, IOM published data indicating that of almost five million non-Thai residents in Thailand, most came from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, accounting for an estimated 3.9 million documented and undocumented migrant workers. These figures are a clear indication of the levels of repeated irregular movement into Thailand from its immediate neighbours.

Maritime Southeast Asia (the Malay Archipelago)

Maritime Southeast Asia includes Brunei, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. These are all territories of destination, transit, and origin in a complex criss-crossing of routes and different modes of movement. The main players with regard to irregular migration are Malaysia and Indonesia. Extensive smuggling reportedly involves unlicensed recruitment agencies in both the origin country and in Malaysia, facilitating both irregular entry and job placement. Malaysia is a regional economic powerhouse with labour shortages—especially in plantations and the construction and manufacturing sectors—and therefore a magnet for thousands of irregular migrants every year, despite evident xenophobia and discrimination, particularly since the onset of Covid-19.During the coronavirus pandemic, Malaysia’s attitude to irregular migrants has toughened, resulting in raids on migrant communities and deportations.

Malaysia is currently estimated to host between 2 and 4 million undocumented migrant workers, with a high proportion being Indonesians. From time to time, Malaysia offers regularisation to irregular migrants; for example, in 2011 it registered approximately 1.3 million undocumented workers. Most of these were Indonesians, but they also included 270,000 Bangladeshis, offering an indication of the numbers involved.

Smuggled migrants enter Malaysia clandestinely or openly but with false documentation, from sub-regional states including Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and the Philippines, as well as those beyond, such as Vietnam, Nepal, and especially Bangladesh. For example, regular passenger boats, fishing trawlers and shipping containers are used to transport Indonesian migrants clandestinely to Malaysia, normally across the Strait of Malacca. Smuggler-facilitated movement of Indonesians to Sabah and Sarawak states involves entering Malaysia overland from Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Rohingya, coming directly from Myanmar or Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, enter Thailand via the Andaman Sea before travelling overland to Malaysia, joining established Rohingya communities in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. UNHCR estimates that between 2012 and 2015, some 170,000 refugees and migrants left Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. This trend virtually ended in 2016 and 2017 but later resumed with almost 1,600 sailing from the Bay of Bengal through the Andaman Sea between January 2018 and June 2019. During the Covid-19 pandemic, vessels have continued to leave Bangladesh undertaking harrowing journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Before Australia stopped all migrant boats reaching its shores (from 2013 onwards), some Myanmar nationals as well as Bangladeshis and many other nationalities (including Somalis, Sri Lankans, and Iranians) used Malaysia as a transit country before travelling onward to Sumatra in Indonesia, with the intention of ultimately reaching Australia. Cambodians travel by air and sea, often entering with tourist visas before looking for work. Bangladeshis use multiple routes and combinations of sea and land. Indonesian and Filipino migrants are believed to comprise the bulk of flows into Malaysia and the route between Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, is reportedly “busy and lucrative” for smugglers.

Commercial flights

Irregular migration by land and sea is widely covered by mainstream media, in articles about, for example, stranded ships laden with refugees and migrants in the Andaman or Mediterranean seas, large groups entering countries on foot, and face-offs between migrants and security forces at European borders. Hidden in plain sight, however, is the reality that tens of thousands of irregular movements occur using commercial airlines, often organised by smugglers who provide the requisite— but often counterfeit or fraudulently obtained—travel documentation and who, where necessary, deal with corrupt officials. Many migrants in irregular situations globally are visa overstays.

Smuggler-facilitated journeys using commercial flights with accompanying documentation tend to cost much more than other types of travel, but rights violations and loss of life are virtually unheard of. However, there are risks of human trafficking and potential detection by authorities. As examples: in 2015 people typically paid smugglers US$12,000–18,000 to fly from Pakistan to Western Europe, US$27,000–47,000 to fly from Nepal/ India to the United States, and US$7,000–15,000 from Vietnam to Western Europe. Chinese “snakehead” gangs have a long tradition of smuggling Chinese nationals around the world, especially to North America. Various reports suggest that the cost ranges from US$20,000 to $70,000 per person, with one study claiming the median price was $50,000.

Use of commercial flights for irregular movement occurs in every continent—but especially in Asia—not only for short legs of journeys that might also need supplementary sea and land transport, but also for longer journeys that take migrants and asylum seekers directly or indirectly to their target destination. Some key long-haul routes include those from South, East, and South-East Asia to North America and Eastern Europe (for onward movement). Irregular migrants also fly into Asia from numerous locations within and outside the region. Some irregular migration involves regular air-travel components. For example, Syrians used to be able to fly without visas (and therefore regularly) to Khartoum, from where they travelled on irregularly to Europe via Libya or Egypt.

Conclusion: the normality of ir

Some of the major routes taken by asylum seekers and migrants, as well as some selected less publicized journeys, are highlighted in this Mixed Migration Review 2021, but behind them there are hundreds more. Migration and the search for asylum involves many roads, many of which, while not necessarily less travelled, are less publicised and researched than those in the media limelight. Some are new routes, while others are well established, having been used for decades. They are best understood as a part of a demand-and-supply dynamic that responds to multiple changing variables, such as population growth, increased aspirations and capabilities, economic conditions, immigration regimes, asylum opportunities, levels of corruption by state officials, the rising impact of climate change, and geographical proximity.

All of this illustrates that irregular movement is common and a normalised aspect of international movement. Although every state and every nationality has its own response to irregular migration, the extent to which irregular migration is problematised and even weaponised in politics varies considerably and changes over time. For millions of people each year, irregular movement, often assisted by smugglers, offers the only hope of finding new opportunities and security, while for many economies, the labour supply of irregular migrants is critical to growth.