Yvon Dandurand & Christopher Wiebe

For many prospective immigrants, Canada represents a land of opportunity and new beginnings. Unfortunately, barriers to legitimate entry frequently drive migrant populations to secure the services of human smugglers. These smuggling networks, often involving transnational criminal organizations, not only pose a threat to border security, but can also significantly endanger the lives of the migrants themselves. For many Canadians, the organizational nature of migrant smuggling networks, and the risk they present to migrants, remains unclear and often misunderstood.

Migrant smuggling networks are adaptable, changing their techniques and routes to better circumvent law enforcement efforts. They operate on a crime-as-a-service business model; their primary objective is to minimize their risk of detection and capture while maximizing their profits, which can be considerable. Therefore, establishing a reputation for reliable, safe, and successful transportation is necessary to ensure the success of their business. Additionally, obtaining the cooperation of corrupt officials further enables smuggling networks, while insulating them from law enforcement disruption.

Smuggling operations can range from small-scale individual opportunists to very complex transnational criminal organizations. The complexity of any given smuggling operation varies depending on the sophistication of the network, the borders to be crossed, the economic means of the migrant, the length of the expected journey, and the degree of risk involved – both to migrants and to smugglers. The more complex the operation, the higher the fees charged to the potential client and the greater the profits for the criminal organization.

A recent provincial court case in British Columbia drew attention to the methods used by at least one such criminal network operating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In that case, the convicted smuggler, Mr. Michael Kong, had been acting as a stage coordinator for a sophisticated transnational criminal group smuggling wealthy Chinese migrants to Canada through the United States. The network had the capacity to offer comprehensive full-service packages to PRC nationals who could afford it. In the smuggling pattern disclosed in that case, migrants, first traveled by air to the United States on a valid visitor’s visa and, as a stage coordinator, Mr. Kong would receive instructions from other members in the network to smuggle these migrants in small groups across the Washington-British Columbia border through Peace Arch Park, and to facilitate their journey to other Canadian destinations, notably Toronto. For his services alone, Mr. Kong charged between $1500 and $2000 per person – paid either by the migrants themselves or by other members of the smuggling network – and has admitted to moving an average of ten to fifteen migrants a year for over ten years. Hundreds of irregular migrants were thus smuggled into Canada and many of them if not most of them subsequently made inland refugee claims in Toronto. No one else from the criminal network, either in Canada or abroad, was prosecuted. The criminal network, one is forced to assume, remains relatively intact and will simply change its methods, its accomplices, or its routes.

The migrant smuggling networks’ decentralized structure, adaptability, and corrupt contacts render them resilient to disruption by law enforcement agencies. The fact that in recent years very few investigations have actually led to the neutralization or dismantlement of any of the very active transnational migrant smuggling networks operating in our country certainly suggests the need to reconsider present law enforcement methods and strategies and to improve international law enforcement cooperation in these matters. Given the wide variations that exist in the nature, scope and complexity of smuggling operations, it is imperative for law enforcement to be both flexible and strategic and to base its interventions on a good understanding of the criminal networks and illicit markets involved.

ICCLR recently released a short report summarizing some of what is known about migrant smuggling patterns and offering some observations about the particular challenges that these fast changing adaptive patterns pose for law enforcement.

Further Reading
Dandurand, Y. (2020). Migrant Smuggling Patterns and Challenges for Law Enforcement. Vancouver: International Centre for Criminal Law Reform.

Photo by Da Nina on Unsplash.

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