Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Risks Arising from Migrant Smuggling

The latest FATF Report focuses on the financial component of migrant smuggling: the nature of the money laundering and terrorist financing threats and vulnerabilities, how to identify the financial flows related to this crime, and how the associated risks are and can be mitigated.

Over the last decade, regional conflict, political instability and repression, poverty, and the impact of climate change have led to increasing numbers of migrants and refugees seeking to move elsewhere. This has led to numerous crises associated with the illegal smuggling of migrants and resulting in thousands of deaths. Every year, millions of migrants in search of a better future put their lives in the hands of migrant smugglers who see them as an opportunity to make huge financial gains. While it is difficult to quantify the exact amount of the proceeds generated, recent increases in migration may mean proceeds currently exceed USD10 billion per annum.

This report aims to update the understanding of money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF) risks associated with migrant smuggling to help countries mitigate the risks, and disrupt and recover the proceeds – an important driver of this crime. It focuses on several relevant parameters associated with the ML/TF risks, in particular the geographical routes, structure of migrant smuggling organisations and networks and, to a lesser extent, the impact of COVID-19. The report also considers the mitigating measures in place.

Key findings of this study include:
• Migrant smuggling has grown in recent years but the number of smugglers arrested remains very low. Many countries do not consider migrant smuggling a ‘high risk’ crime for money laundering and only very few investigations or prosecutions are initiated or concluded. This is due to a range of factors including a lack of effective international cooperation and often a lack of focus and resources to support a ‘follow the money’ approach.
• An informal money transfer system, known as hawala, is the most common method of transferring funds generated from migrant smuggling between jurisdictions. This makes it extremely hard for law enforcement agencies to perform financial investigations. Other methods include the physical transportation of funds via cash couriers or money mules.
• In recent years, smugglers have started to widely use social media and encrypted digital communication services in their operations for recruitment and coordination. This provides opportunities for smugglers to enhance their efficiency, but also opportunities for law enforcement to detect and trace the activity of smugglers including financial flows.
• Migrant smuggling groups also appear to increasingly outsource their money laundering activities to professional laundering networks.
• Overall, there is limited information available on the connections between terrorist financing and migrant smuggling. However, there is evidence of terrorists receiving money from smugglers along various African migration
routes in the form of ‘tolls’ for safe passage through the territory they control, and links with facilitation of FTFs.
• Many countries face difficulties in understanding the ML/TF risks they face from migrant smuggling. While some countries have access to qualitive information and case studies, a large percentage of countries were unable to provide complete statistics on aspects of the performance of their AML/CFT systems in relation to migrant smuggling.
• Migrant smuggling is a transnational crime, yet national and international collaboration between relevant authorities has been challenging for many countries. To prevent migrant smuggling, countries need to proactively follow the money linked to migrant smuggling. The report identifies a number of good practices and recommendations. These include strengthening inter-institutional, international and regional cooperation, with a particular focus on supporting countries that are directly affected by migrant smuggling.
• The report also highlights the importance of strengthening cooperation with the private sector and providing them guidance and information on the specific methods that the smugglers are using to transfer and conceal proceeds. Financial institutions and in particular banks and money or value transfer services have an important role to play in providing accurate and targeted suspicious transactions reports that can help authorities profile migrant smugglers’ financial behaviour.

Migrant smuggling might not yield as high sums compared to other major transnational crimes, but it often causes significant physical harm and suffering. Countries need to take action so that they are more effective in pursuing, disrupting and recovering the illicit profits that incentivize criminals to smuggle migrants.

Migrant smuggling is a crime that has an often significant consequence on the lives of millions of civilians, with criminals taking advantage of the sometimes desperate plight of individuals seeking to escape nature disaster, conflict, persecution or poverty, or looking for economic opportunity. It is an issue that is high on the list of priorities for many governments and has been subject of a number of resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council.

As with other major proceeds generating crimes, identifying pursuing and disrupting the proceeds and instrumentalities, and sanctioning those in laundering them, can play a key role tackling the crime itself. Since the FATF last focused on migrant smuggling in 20114 there have been significant changes that have affected both migratory patterns, and the financial flows associated with the facilitation of irregular migration5 around the world. A number of factors has driven these changes, including the continuing advancement of globalisation through the reach and influence of global communication tools such as social media; a series of economic crises and political events, affecting the employment opportunities of young people in particular; and the increasing presence of online market places that are facilitating the sale of, and payment for, smuggling services.

Under its German Presidency (2020-2022), the FATF made it one if its priorities to update the understanding of the money laundering and terrorist financing risks associated with migrant smuggling. This report represents the conclusion of that work, bringing together key intelligence from competent authorities around the world on what is inherently a cross-border risk, and drawing on the findings of research conducted by partner organisations such as Europol, INTERPOL, UN CTED, UNODC and FATF-style regional bodies such as CFATF and MENAFATF.

In accordance with the FATF Recommendations, all countries must apply the crime of money laundering to all serious offences including migrant smuggling.7 Article 6 of the abovementioned Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants provides a set of measures on the criminalisation of smuggling with intent to generate a financial or other material benefit. It is also important to note that the offence of migrant smuggling has several distinct aspects that differ from other offences, and in particular human trafficking.8 Firstly, migrants have consented to be transported, whereas the victims of human trafficking have not; secondly, the smuggling ends with the arrival of the migrant in the destination, whereas human trafficking often involves ongoing exploitation in some other way; and thirdly, migrant smuggling is always transnational whereas human trafficking may not be. In addition, the routes and amounts of proceeds that are generated are often different. Nevertheless, there are some linkages between the two crime types, for example the same criminal networks may be involved in both migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

The key objective of this project is to strengthen and update the understanding of ML/TF risks arising from migrant smuggling at a global level. The target audience is both competent authorities, in particular financial investigators and experts responsible for assessing and monitoring national ML and TF risks, and the private sector. Ultimately, this project should help countries and the private sector to align their national and institutional controls and strategies through an enhanced understanding of ML/TF risks from this criminal market.

These objectives are delivered through three parts:
• Part one provides an overview of migrant smuggling routes and flows, and the structure of migrant smuggling organisations and networks.
• Part two analyses cases studies and responses of the countries to the questionnaire, drawing insights on ML/TF risks, investigations, and international cooperation.
• Part three identifies good practices for countries to consider.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an independent inter-governmental body that develops and promotes policies to protect the global financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The FATF Recommendations are recognised as the global anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CFT) standard.
© FATF (2022), ML/TF Risks Arising from Migrant Smuggling, FATF, Paris, France,