1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. West Africa

People trafficking is biggest crime business after drugs

International Organization for Migration - IOM logo.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told IRIN the Kyrgyz Republic was an increasingly attractive prospect for traffickers. (IOM)

Over one million people from West and Central Africa have emigrated clandestinely to Europe over the past decade and people-trafficking has now become the biggest crime racket in Africa after drugs, according to information released at a conference in Cote d'Ivoire this week.

The International Office for Migration (IOM) told the three-day conference organised by the international police organisation Interpol that in 1991 there were an estimated two million "irregular migrants" in Europe from West and Central Africa.

Today, it said, the figure was just over three million.

Armand Rousselot, the IOM regional representative for West Africa, said France, Italy and Spain were the most favoured destinations of illegal migrants, many of whom travel overland across the Sahara before attempting the short sea journey across the Mediterranean or across the Atlantic approaches to Spain in dangerously overcrowded boats.

“If a migrant wants to go, he will find the means to do so”, Rousselot said.

But the services of those who supply forged documents and provide clandestine transport do not come cheap. Obtaining a forged passport and entry visa for the European Union can cost up to US$4,000.

And those who try instead to make it clandestinely across the sea in a crowded boat to a lonely beach pay heavily for a place on board.

“It’s quite a lot of money," said Immanuel Fernandos Sam, of Interpol’s Southern Africa bureau. "It is the most threatening thing after drug trafficking."

“We’re talking of billions”, Italian delegate Vincenzo Baldessare said.

Baldessare said that Italy officially calculated that 23,000 illegal migrants who pay an average of $2,000 each to people smugglers were reaching its shores each year. But he added that this was a serious under-estimate.

According to the IOM, people trafficking is often carried out by members of the same family living in the country of destination and fictitious businesses or non-governmental organizations. Throughout West Africa, Nigerians play a prominent role in the business.

The IOM says the trade always involves at least one middle-man who promises to acquire all the necessary papers. However nothing is guaranteed and the money is never reimbursed.

Nearly all the clandestine migrants from Africa are seeking a way out of unemployment and economic hardship at home.

Experts at the conference said the main countries of origin included Nigeria, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

According to Interpol estimates, a false passport and visa costs around $1,900 in the Central African Republic and people smugglers in the country earn about $50 million a year from the trade.

In wealthier countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, the fake documents can cost nearly $4,000 to arrange. Interpol reckons that those controlling the immigration racket in Abidjan earn between $50 and $100 million each year.

The middlemen in Senegal pocket over $100 million, it added.

Globally, Interpol estimates that the people trafficking business is worth about $9 billion, although delegates at the Abidjan conference were unable to say how much of that related to Africa.

No legal framework yet exists for controlling the flow of illegal immigrants from Africa into Europe. However, Algeria’s delegate, Naoui Mohamed Sifi said both sides could no longer shy away from the issue because of the high security costs involved for both sides.

Interpol’s role is to assist individual countries in combating the trade, mainly by providing information on suspected traffickers and pushing for increased collaboration between the countries of departure and destination.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Join