Smugglers’ paradise – cities as hubs of the illicit migration business

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s authors Lucia Bird and Tuesday Reitano work at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, respectively as Senior Analyst and Deputy Director.

Human smuggling has developed into a central component of mixed migration flows. Cities, with their infrastructure, connectivity and anonymity, have facilitated this transition and the attendant proliferation of criminality.


We are currently living in what the late former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan termed the “urban millennium”. Over half of the world’s population now live in urban areas, with almost 10 per cent living in megacities (defined as those with more 10 million inhabitants). Cities are points of confluence and hubs of connectivity, not only through their geography and transportation infrastructure, but also because of their higher rates of internet penetration and better telephony services. Cities are where an ever-increasing proportion of people come together to live, work, and trade. Cities connect the local to the regional, and beyond it to the international.

Urban connectivity offers significant opportunities for licit trade and brings tangible development benefits, with cities being the engines of economic growth and trade. However, it also creates parallel openings for illicit trade, which exists in the shadows of its licit counterpart and is similarly reliant on the infrastructure cities offer. Cities’ infrastructure embeds illicit trade into international markets, empowering criminal networks to form connections with groups operating elsewhere in the country, or indeed overseas, including through diaspora connections. These connections facilitate the smuggling of both goods and people. The latter has become pivotal to modern mixed migration flows.

Blurred lines

Urban infrastructure also enables criminal networks to cross the blurry divide between licit and illicit markets, laundering illicit funds through banks and legal businesses, and exploiting the services provided by lawyers and logistics companies to move commodities and manage operations. Where state complicity is required, cities also offer a wide range of corruptible officials who can facilitate illicit trade. And as they host dense populations and high concentrations of wealth, cities are normally the destination market for the majority of illicit goods and services. Thus, while cities are typically hubs of licit commerce, they are also burgeoning markets for illicit industry.

Cities offer myriad services, both licit and illicit, to their residents and visitors, including migrants and refugees. The importance of cities for a wide range of illicit trades, from the trafficking of drugs to that of humans and firearms, has been widely recognised. There has been less focus, however, on the role cities play in fostering connections between illicit markets. Cities engender contexts of poly-criminality which match our understanding of criminal markets as endlessly diversifying to capitalise on new opportunities. The anonymity offered by cities allows illicit trade to operate in the shadows, while their sheer size helps to hide significant illicit trade infrastructure. In some human smuggling hubs, services and goods required to complete the journey are often offered brazenly. In Mogadishu, for example, “travel agencies” openly advertise trips to Amsterdam or other locations for some thousands of dollars, while in Dakar, travel agents offer “help” with French visas for € 2,000, and in Izmir, a smuggling town in Turkey, vendors hawk lifejackets by emphasising their important role in the sea voyage to Greece.

Supply and demand

The human smuggling economy is one of a range of illicit markets which exploits the enhanced connectivity facilitated by cities, in this case to coordinate irregular flows of people. It both facilitates and preys upon the innate drive of people to seek out livelihoods, security, and opportunities, both for internal and transnational migration. For refugees, and those on the move due to conflict and violence who have not satisfied a state’s asylum requirements, and who are therefore not recognised as refugees, cities offer a temporary haven, an administrative hub for those submitting asylum claims, and a place to connect with smugglers for those using cities as a stepping stone for longer cross-border journeys

Cities are where people are concentrated and thus it is where smugglers also cluster. As smuggling networks depend on transport infrastructure and may use public transportation systems to move refugees and migrants, they tend to congregate around road and rail hubs, as well as ports and airports. For the most lucrative “full package” smuggling journeys, comparatively wealthy customers are offered fast, safe, intercontinental movement that requires access to airports and fraudulent documents. A significant proportion of fake visas emerge from legitimate consulates, which are based in cities.

Urbanisation is set to continue at a rapid pace, with cities expected to continue to pull in millions of migrants from rural areas. By 2050, some 68 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas, up from 55 percent in 2018. In parallel, human smuggling is an extremely fast-growing global criminal activity, as safe and legal routes for migration are insufficiently available, and is likely to expand further following an expected spike in the desire to migrate due to the longer term socio-economic impacts of Covid -19. Even if Covid-19 restrictions on mobility will ease at some point, the availability of legal channels is likely to remain insufficient to satisfy the demand for migration, leading to an increase in irregular migration and further growth of the human smuggling business. The role of cities in global human smuggling dynamics is therefore set to become ever more important.

Growing trends: urbanisation and human smuggling

Rural-to-urban migration is one of the key drivers of global urbanisation and is a key element of the global movement landscape. Migration plays a significant role in shaping the cities of today, with migration booms simultaneously stretching cities’ public infrastructure and driving their growth. Organised crime is drawn to cities by the same infrastructure that attracts migrants, especially the options it provides for entry and departure.

Cities’ myriad benefits

Given that cities account for a large and ever-growing proportion of the world’s population, it is unsurprising that many of those who embark upon or who have undergone irregular migration journeys—often facilitated by smugglers—live in cities. Among the millions drawn to cities are those who are not looking to settle, but rather seek to use cities, with their connectivity, services, and infrastructure, as launchpads for longer journeys to what is hoped will be a better life. Cities’ attractions range from food and accommodation while in transit; opportunities to earn, receive and store funds to finance journeys; and sources of fake documents, international SIM cards to keep in touch with families back home, and equipment needed along the journey, such as life vests for sea travel.

The range of ancillary services provided to migrants by smuggling networks can bolster a range of urban businesses. The hospitality sector in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi, for example, derives significant benefit from the critically important role they play in human smuggling from Punjab over the border to Iran, from where many hope to travel on to the Gulf or Europe. Migrants and refugees who have paid to take the land route through Iran are usually accommodated in Quetta or Karachi before attempting to cross the border. Particularly in Quetta, this ensures that a considerable segment of the local economy—hotel owners in particular—is heavily reliant on the people-moving trade.[1]

Certain drivers of global urbanisation, such as the enhanced connectivity that fuels aspirations for a better life as rural livelihood options dwindle, have also driven the growth of the human smuggling industry. At the same time, forced displacements across the globe have spiked in the last seven years, fuelling further movement. Yet legal avenues for international migration, particularly for people from developing countries, are often unavailable, unaffordable or administratively impractical. This has triggered a sharp increase in people moving irregularly and, consequently, created a growing need for the services smugglers provide. Cities are the launchpads, transit points, and destination areas of these smuggled journeys. They are also the best place to find a smuggler.

Trading hubs and transhipment points: nodes of criminal business

Cities are built on longstanding trading corridors, paved over by modern roads and transport infrastructure. The imperative to trade in commodities both licit and illicit as a key element of livelihoods throughout history creates the conditions for urbanisation, fostering the growth of cities. This is true not only of modern dynamics, but also of ancient trade routes which shaped the birthplace of today’s cities. Historically, cities grew around rivers, ports and marketplaces, as can be tracked in the architecture of many of today’s modern cities.

Cities emerged at locations where goods were transhipped from one mode of transport to another, operating as the transportation nodes of converging trading routes. This transhipment could either be “intramodal (between two carriers of the same mode) or intermodal (between different modes of transport)”. It is the latter that most commonly creates trading hubs. Port cities, such as Rotterdam and Mombasa, continue to play pivotal roles in global trading mechanics and illicit flows.

Similarly, in the case of human smuggling, cities emerged as hubs in large part because of their transhipment capacity, be it between different smuggling networks operating on the same stretch of a journey (intramodal), or between networks specialising in different modes of travel, such as land, sea, or air (intermodal).

Too much to monitor

Mombasa is a key entry and exit point for flows of illicit goods in Southern and Eastern Africa, although increased law enforcement pressure in the last few years may have displaced some flows to smaller, less supervised, ports. However, even with enhanced scrutiny, corruption, together with capacity constraints, makes comprehensive screening of containers and bulk cargo moving through ports and other points of entry and departure impossible. Illustratively, port authorities in Africa and Europe alike have an average capacity to physically screen less than 2 per cent of containers moving through their facilities. Ports with high throughput therefore pose a governance challenge and present a huge opportunity for criminal networks to move their commodities, safe in the knowledge that the risks of interception are vanishingly small in the absence of targeted intelligence. The sheer volume of trade flowing by land, sea, and air through key cities such as Istanbul has been repeatedly identified by analysts as an insurmountable obstacle in effective monitoring of illicit flows, be they of drugs or people. Compounding this, in the hierarchy of illicit goods, people moving irregularly are typically seen as less of a priority by states than other illicit commodities, such as drugs and firearms. Consequently, the resources that do exist tend to be focussed elsewhere.

Trading corridors are intricately bound up with patterns of human movement and consequently also with the operations of the smugglers who facilitate a growing amount of this movement. The historic patterns of human mobility have a symbiotic relationship with the positioning of trade hubs, which drew migrants seeking to exchange goods at buzzing marketplaces, and were simultaneously established by traders settling there. Established trade and migration routes—and their illegitimate counterparts, illicit flows and irregular movements—thus map over but also shape, and often determine the geographic positioning of, urban centres.

Corruption lubricates illegality

Established patterns of corruption at points of entry and exit, and at national borders, facilitate the movement of illicit flows through cities and between countries. Patterns of corruption are first created to facilitate the movement of higher value illicit goods, such as ivory or illicit drugs. They will rely on a system of bribes paid to customs officers at airports or seaports, and to border officials at national crossings and checkpoints. Once entrenched, these systems of corruption can then also be used to facilitate the irregular movement of people. In many contexts the same route and transport mechanism will be used to move illicit commodities and people, sometimes in opposite directions. For example, Toubou smugglers who transport refugees and migrants in trucks from Niger into Libya, dropping them about 20 kilometres south of Sebha, a town in southern Libya, also transport barrels of fuel back into Niger, capitalising on the lower price of oil in Libya. This ensures profit is made on both legs of the journey.

Cities as smuggling industry hubs

Our understanding of the human smuggling industry has increasingly moved away from tracking routes— which shift quickly based upon a number of factors, including changing law-enforcement focus and the hostility of migration policies—to considering the role played by “hubs”, which, although also dynamic, are more constant over time. These hubs serve as nodes which connect, modify, and define routes, structuring the range of route options on offer. They connect migrants from myriad places of origin with a variety of smuggling service providers at all levels to fit any budget, offering itineraries to countless destinations. These hubs are almost exclusively cities or large towns, not least because migrants themselves inject resources into existing local economies, swelling them in number as well in dynamism, as local populations and industries grow up to cater to the flow of people moving through their community.

For smugglers, cities are therefore areas of recruitment, places to exchange with other networks, and points of ultimate destination where arrangements between smugglers and migrants will, in most cases, terminate. In each of these roles, cities are key to regional smuggling dynamics.

Migrants from rural areas which are characterised by longstanding high levels of mobility may well connect with a smuggler known to the community from their area of origin. However, many migrants will travel independently into a city to connect with their smuggler, either hoping to identify one upon arrival, or developing existing relationships initiated through social media, or word-of-mouth interactions. Those who have successfully completed their migration journey are often the best placed to become smugglers themselves, or to recruit new candidates to follow their paths, creating an enduring link between source and destination countries, and cementing the interconnections between hubs and routes.

Socio-political factors, such as differing visa regimes, or a particularly hostile migration environment, also shape the role of particular cities as hubs on the smuggling industry. Tijuana, the largest city on Mexico’s northern border with the United States, has long played an important part in both regular and irregular crossings of people from Mexico into San Diego, California, as well as in the drug smuggling industry. Human smugglers operating in Tijuana offer their services not only to migrants and refugees travelling northwards through Mexico, predominantly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but also to deportees from the United States who seek re-enter the country.

A segmented business

The role of cities as points of transit and exchange is shaped not only by the infrastructure and connectivity they offer, but also by the structure of the smuggling industry, which in many areas is composed of discrete groups which specialise in facilitating movement from one hub to the next. These networks often work in cooperation with other groups along the same migration route, and pass people on at each hub. Networks operating in “pay-as-you-go” smuggling markets, which constitute the vast majority of the global smuggling industry, typically specialise in a single mode of transport, namely land, air or sea. This requires refugees and migrants to be handed over to a different network specialised in a different type of transport, giving rise to intermodal transhipment points and smuggling hubs.

Maritime trade

Coastal cities, which are experiencing much of the world’s urbanisation, (in a phenomenon known as littoralisation), play key roles as intermodal transhipment points and as embarkation hubs for maritime smuggling operations. This is partly due to the profit structure of the predominant “pay-as-you-go” model, in which those on the move pay for each leg of their journey separately, generally to different smugglers. The largest investment by smugglers is in the fixed costs for transportation, with only minimal and variable per-head costs for accommodation and food. Smugglers thus benefit from economies of scale, as profits are higher when large numbers of migrants and refugees are moved simultaneously. Smugglers therefore assemble migrants in coastal cities, waiting to gather enough passengers to fill vessels to capacity (or, in many cases, beyond safe capacity). Smugglers and their clients can also blend into the urban setting as they wait for clement weather.

Izmir, the gateway to Greece

Izmir, Turkey’s third- largest city and one of its largest ports, became a key assembling point for refugees and migrants seeking to reach the Greek islands of Lesbos and Kos during Europe’s so-called “migration crisis” that peaked in 2015.

Izmir produces and exports a range of goods, from foods to textiles, and has significant petrochemical and engineering works. Its more recent industry, human smuggling, has spawned an intricate infrastructure which quickly sprang up to meet demand, including hotels catering exclusively to refugees and migrants, some even specialising in offering services to specific nationalities or ethnic groups, and shops selling a range of life vests to meet every customer’s price point. At the peak of the smuggling industry in 2015, several clothing stores in Izmir moved their usual stock to their basements, opting to display and sell only a lucrative range of life vests. To cater to the financial needs of refugees and migrants, a number of travel agencies in Izmir also provide money-transfer services, or escrow accounts into which those on the move make cash deposits that are only released to smugglers upon their clients’ safe arrival.

Ports in the Horn

While irregular migrants and refugees can cross many land borders unaided, additional help from smugglers is needed for most sea crossings, a necessity which swells the importance of coastal cities as smuggling hubs. Djibouti’s port city of Obock, 250 kilometres away from Djibouti City (itself a smuggling hub) is a significant smuggling transhipment point on the Eastern route from the Horn of Africa towards the Gulf States. Ethiopian nationals make up more than 90 percent of those moving along this mixed migration route. While many cross Djibouti’s harsh terrain independently, all need to hire the services of a smuggler for the sea journey towards Yemen. Most will connect with a smuggler in Obock who will facilitate the journey from a number of departure points near the city.

The port of Bossaso in Somalia’s Puntland state is another key port of departure on the Eastern human smuggling route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen: though it has been changing from year to year, some years a large majority of departures took place from Bossaso, even though the sea crossing from Obock is much shorter. In 2019, some 62 percent of arrivals in Yemen started their sea crossings from Bossaso, with the rest departing from points near Obock, others from Hargeisa in Somaliland). In 2019, an average of 11,500 people boarded vessels each month from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, making the waters between the two “the busiest maritime migration route” in the world.

Work, money and debt

In their role as transit points, cities also offer refugees and migrants employment: an opportunity to top-up travel funds along the way. Many people do not embark on their journey with all the money required to reach their intended destination. These migrants will seek work to fund onwards travel, and they will typically look for it in cities, where jobs are more commonly available, often in sprawling urban informal labour markets.

Research conducted in 2019 found that 42 percent of 1,689 migrants in transit and potential migrants surveyed in Niger and Mali reported working along the way. For many migrants, journey costs include payment to smugglers, who in some cases employ their clients.

Exploitation and trafficking

While most migrants and refugees pay their smugglers as soon as they engage them for a leg of a journey, some, lacking the necessary funds, opt for “travel now, pay later” schemes and may find themselves indebted to their smuggler and therefore vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

Cities hide informal and illicit economies of significant scale, which offer opportunities for exploitative labour markets, including in informal factories and sweatshops, as well as the tourism and construction industries. These are all hubs for migrant workers, both formal and informal, and for criminal trafficking groups .

As noted above, the relationship between smuggler and migrant (or refugee) tends to end at the agreed destination, which will typically be a city, often one with a large population offering anonymity and employment. In some cases, however, smuggling networks proceed to exploit their clients in contexts which constitute trafficking, or pass them on to trafficking networks which will offer the only available form of livelihood. Certain mixed migration routes have come to pose a particularly high risk of trafficking to migrants and refugees, including the smuggling route from Myanmar to northern Malaysia and southern Thailand used predominantly by Rohingya Muslims since 2015, and the route through Libya towards Europe.

As many smuggled migrants and refugees are unable to attain regular status upon arriving at their destination, they become stuck in a state of tenuous irregularity, unable to rely on cities’ formal support structures, and therefore rendered extremely vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks, including in the form of trafficking. Cities thus offer the trafficking networks that exploit migrants and refugees both in transit and at their destination a wide range of informal businesses in which to traffic workers. For many networks based in such cities, humans will be one of several commodities trafficked into, through, and from the city for profit.

Smuggled migrants and refugees who become victims of trafficking are vulnerable to becoming involved in illicit activities, since they have scant opportunities to participate in the formal economy. In the UK, there are repeated reports of Vietnamese migrants and refugees smuggled into the country being compelled to work in cannabis farms, leaving them vulnerable to charges of illicit cultivation of narcotics.

Superhub cities

Of course, cities vary widely, and some play a far larger role in regional human smuggling dynamics, and indeed illicit trade more broadly, than others. Those that emerge as particularly pivotal in the smuggling industry— known as “superhubs”—are pre -disposed by a range of geographic and socio-political factors; they are often positioned at interfaces where geographic or political obstacles complicate human movement. Where such hubs develop, they can engender the growth of the smuggling industry in smaller, connected “spoke” towns which are strategically placed along the journey, such as Izmir, considered above, or Bani Walid in Northern Libya, a mere 180 kilometres from Tripoli, and on the northwards route towards the Mediterranean coast from where embarkations towards Europe are co-ordinated.

Turkey is a major gateway for land, sea, and air routes to Europe. Playing a pivotal role in the migration system of the Mediterranean basin for decades, Turkey has served as a funnel for refugees and migrants from Central Asia and the Middle East—mainly Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and India—as well as from the Horn of Africa, heading to Europe. Many of the routes used today have been in operation for decades, used not only by migrant smugglers, but also by traffickers of various types of illicit substances, including drugs such as heroin, which has served to develop a sophisticated and multi-faceted illicit urban economy.


Istanbul has long been a hub for illicit trade, a role shaped by its location as well as by Turkey’s porous borders and widespread corruption. Before all its scheduled passenger flights were transferred to the new, much larger Istanbul Airport in April 2019, Istanbul Atatürk Airport was the Turkey’s most important departure point for air traffic to Europe, with passenger numbers to Europe on the rise since 2010, thanks in part to Turkish Airlines’ expansion into new routes in Africa and the Middle East. Significant irregular migration to EU member states was recorded at Atatürk Airport, through both document fraud and the “double check-in” method. Turkey’s position as the intersection of Asia, Europe and the Middle East came to the fore in the context of the Syrian crisis during which, enhanced by Turkey’s free -visa regime with Syria until 2015, Turkey emerged as a key departure point of the European migration surge for those travelling by air.

Istanbul, which straddles the Sea of Marmara to connect Asia with mainland Europe, serves as a central hub for inward and outward migration. Cities play a pivotal role in Turkey’s smuggling market, with three in particular hosting the lion’s share of smuggling services: Istanbul, Izmir, and Aydin.

Since the contentious €6 billion deal reached by Brussels and Ankara in March 2016 to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe from Turkey, the numbers of people moving on this route have plummeted since their 2015 peak. However, irregular movement (much of it facilitated by smugglers) surged across land and sea routes following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement to Parliament on 22 February 2020 announcing that Turkey’s borders with Europe were again open. The speed and scale of this spike in movement demonstrates how quickly smuggling networks embedded in these long -established hubs can spring back into action. A mere week after Erdoğan’s announcement, on 1 March, Greece saw the biggest number of refugees and migrants arrive from Turkey by sea in a single day since March 2016.

Since March 2020, the Covid -19 pandemic, and the restrictions imposed by Turkish and EU governments to contain its spread, have reduced movement and human smuggling activity in many parts of the world. However, the crisis that will inevitably ravage Turkey’s already struggling economy, and drive many in the Middle East and Asia to move in search of better livelihoods, is likely to trigger a renewed surge of migrants and refugees risking their lives on the crossing to Europe. Istanbul’s longstanding position as a superhub for human smuggling into Europe is set to come to the fore once more.


Nairobi is a regional superhub for the smuggling industry in eastern Africa. A melting pot of cultures and ethnicities half of whose inhabitants living in informal settlements, the Kenyan capital—which is within reach of Dadaab refugee camp, the third largest in the world—offers refugees and irregular migrants myriad options to blend into the city while they obtain the documents needed for onwards travel, or connect with the smugglers responsible for facilitating the next leg of their journey. Nairobi’s human smuggling industry is firmly entrenched, and most potential clients will be able to find smugglers of their own nationality willing to co-ordinate their onwards travel. Nairobi’s sprawling informal economies offer refugees and migrants a range of employment opportunities, shaping its role as both a final destination and a transit point from which to fund onward travel. Some smuggling networks specialise in facilitating movement out of Dadaab—which is so big it has many of the trappings of a city itself—into Nairobi, where migrants and refugees can more easily organise the next leg of their journey.

Nairobi is a hub on both air and terrestrial smuggling routes and is connected by road and rail to the port of Mombasa and thence international maritime trading routes. The capital’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the busiest in East Africa and is a key regional departure point on the Eastern smuggling and trafficking route to the Gulf States, where thousands of East Africans travel in search of employment. By land, Nairobi is an important consolidation hub on the southern smuggling route towards South Africa. While quantitative data on this route is limited, mixed migration flows into Southern Africa appear to be increasing, with a significant proportion of these journeys facilitated by smugglers. Of particular concern is evidence suggesting that the smuggling markets on the southern route are becoming more exploitative. Widespread corruption in Nairobi, including among customs, law enforcement and judiciary officials, grease the wheels of not only the human smuggling industry, but also of the flow of drugs (particularly heroin), firearms and other illicit commodities.

Istanbul and Nairobi are only two of the world’s numerous smuggling superhubs, a grey list which also includes (but is certainly not limited to) Bangkok, Khartoum, Karachi, and Mexico City. These cities offer crucial opportunities for regional and global connectivity, operating as sprawling marketplaces co-ordinating the illicit flows of people and commodities. These superhubs interconnect to form a global net of shadow trade.

Fraudulent documents

Most irregular migration happens not through the clandestine and perilous land and sea journeys that receive extensive news media coverage, but by ostensibly legitimate travel that crosses the line into irregularity when, for example, employment contracts and visas expire, or fraudulent passports or other travel documents are obtained. This is another industry that clusters inside cities.

Smuggling by air is co-ordinated by well-organised networks which often offer “full package” services— the first class of irregular travel—to migrants who have significant financial resources. Full package services may include both air travel (often on long -haul intercontinental journeys) and travel by land or sea. Smuggling networks based in São Paulo, Brazil, offer such packages to nationals from East Africa and the Middle East, providing fake Brazilian travel documents for initial flights to Latin America, then facilitating overland movement through Mexico to the United States. Networks offering air travel need to interact with the formal economy, including in order to buy plane tickets, and they therefore need to be able to launder money between the formal and informal sectors. For this reason, many run parallel, ostensibly licit companies, such as travel agencies whose main line of business is often thinly veiled behind promotions for seemingly legitimate cruises; what is actually on offer may be intimated by the large-font inducement of “no visa required”.

These networks rely on a range of counterfeiters who can provide their customers with the travel documents they need but cannot obtain on the licit market. Some cities, (often capital cities) that are high-transit zones for irregular migrants and legitimate travellers, have become hubs of the counterfeiting industry, or at least the place where vendors can be found, with document production taking place elsewhere.

In popular tourist destinations such as Bangkok, it is relatively easy for criminal organisations to establish a trade in illicit passports: they buy valid ones from partygoers or backpackers who have run out of money and are looking to make some fast cash. Tourists then report their passport stolen, get a new one and resume their travels after filling in a one-page form on which basis their consulates will issue them a temporary travel permit. The “stolen” passports feed a flourishing black market, likely constituting a significant proportion of the 84 million stolen and lost travel documents listed on Interpol’s database.

But the golden ticket of such fakery is a blank passport that has been bought or stolen from the issuing country by seasoned criminals. Fake, doctored, or look- alike passports will always carry a risk of detection, but authentic blank passports, when correctly filled out, are almost impossible to spot. (A useful second-best is a legitimate visa sticker or stamp allowing someone to travel on their own national passport.) The best way to secure these is from foreign consulates in capital or big cities. Consulate staff, who tend to be locally hired rather than foreign diplomats, are targeted for corruption by smugglers ready to pay thousands of dollars for genuine passports. These are used as models that the counterfeiters reproduce, or sold on for three or four times the price to illicit travellers. In Khartoum, an extremely important regional hub for human smuggling, there is a flourishing black market in fraudulent Eritrean identity documents, and there are reports of genuine passports being issued by the Eritrean consulate under a false identity. Eritreans travel overland (predominantly irregularly given that it is almost impossible to leave Eritrea legally) to Khartoum, from where wealthier migrants and refugees will fly out using purchased fraudulent  documents,  while  those  of  more  limited means will continue on overland routes towards their final destination.

Another way criminal networks procure false documentation is to counterfeit other identification documents such as birth certificates and use them to obtain passports. A similar approach is taken to counterfeiting the supporting documents required for the work, study, or travel visas used to gain entry into destination  countries,  such  as  marriage  certificates, school leaving certificates, bank statements, and entry or exit stamps in passports. The fraudulent document market can be extremely specialised, and those who offer the service base themselves in cities where their clients and the examples on which the original documents are most easily found.


Cities are dynamic, characterised by a constant flow of goods and people, including refugees and migrants travelling both regularly and irregularly. Just as cities operate as hubs for licit trade, they are similarly crucial to global illicit trade.

Legitimate  businesses  and  organised  crime  groups alike are drawn to the infrastructure which underpins cities, relying on physical and telecommunications infrastructure to expand the scale and geographic reach of operations and to diversify across commodities and benefit from operational synergies.

Human  smuggling  networks  exploit  the  connectivity offered by cities, drawing from their vast pools of potential clients, and relying on the transportation networks they are founded on. Infrastructure development, and the enhanced connectivity it offers, opens up many opportunities for “deviant globalization ”, namely “the unpleasant underside of transnational integration.” Similarly, the growth of cities, and the opportunities they offer to the shadow economy, drives “deviant urbanisation”, strengthening the pivotal role played by smuggling cities in global illicit flows. In many cases it is these illicit activities by urban-based migrant smugglers – despite the rights violations and abuses they are also guilty of – that offer so many refugees and migrants the opportunity to reach their intended destinations and from which, using regular channels, they would normally be barred.

[1] Interviews conducted by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime in Quetta and Karachi, including with Federal Investigation Agency officials in both cities, January 2017.