Facilitation of Modern Slavery through Migrant Smuggling

Szablewska, Natalia (2022). Facilitation of Modern Slavery through Migrant Smuggling. In: International Conference of the Jean Monnet Network on EU Law Enforcement (EULEN) Conference: 'The EU Migration, Border Management and Asylum Reform in the Aftermath of the Refugee Crisis: Towards an Effective Enforcement', 2-3 Jun 2022, University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain.


The term ‘modern slavery’ has been gaining popularity in recent years, with a number of countries passing legislation to address and prevent its different forms, including in supply chains. Even though there is no agreed definition of it, modern slavery is widely understood to cover different forms of acute human exploitation, whether via forced or bonded labour, human trafficking, forced marriage, organ harvesting or orphanage trafficking.

The practice of modern slavery is not insignificant as it is estimated that some 40.3 million people around the world lived in some form of modern slavery on any given day in 2016 (ILO and Walk Free Foundation, 2017), which makes it more prevalent today than at any time in history. In Europe and Central Asia, it is estimated that 3,5 million people are enslaved (Walk Free Foundation, 2018). These estimates are considered to be conservative, and the actual figures are most likely much higher but might never be fully known due to the clandestine nature of modern slavery practices as well as limited access to, or availability of data from, certain countries and regions.

The different forms of modern slavery mean that there is no one profile of a modern slavery victim, nor there is one characteristic that makes someone more vulnerable to modern slavery. However, migrants are considered to be a group at high risk, in particular, if they have an irregular legal status. Modern slavery is also highly profitable, with $150bn in profits every year being generated from forced labour alone (ILO, 2014), and migrant smuggling is estimated to bring between $5 to 7bn worldwide per year (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018). Thus, even though one can take place without the other one, in the sense that not every smuggled migrant will necessarily become a victim of modern slavery and not every victim of modern slavery is a migrant, these practices are mutually reinforcing by creating conditions conducive to both practices flourishing. Also, in many instances, the same criminal networks operate across the smuggling and acute exploitation routes (e.g., Europol, 2021).

Under pillar three of the European Union’s (EU) action plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025), on preventing exploitation and ensuring the protection of migrants, migrants who are victims of crimes should be offered support and protection in all circumstances. However, the increasing focus on the securitisation of migration obscures the underlying social, economic and political ‘push’ factors that fuel the crimes of smuggling and modern slavery. Thus, a more comprehensive response is needed that examines the issues of migration management, market regulation and development more widely. This paper will use a comparative lens to examine global developments in regulating labour-related forms of modern slavery vis-à-vis the EU’s border management and law enforcement strategies.

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