Experts state that COVID-19 and mobile money services have changed the modus operandi of criminal networks trafficking and smuggling people

A panel of experts on migration, human trafficking and smuggling, and the rise of mobile money services came together to discuss the changes they have seen emerging with the rise of COVID-19 and the growth of money mobile services within the criminal networks. However, the experts also agree that the pandemic presents a chance to reflect on the role of technology and the fight against human trafficking. The experts argue that protection should be key and that prosecution, in new and innovative ways, should focus on the quality of arrests, not quantity. Just as criminal groups take advantage of increased interconnectivity, so can the efforts taken to stop their exploitation.

“I left Eritrea because of the endless military service, which can only be described as slavery. We arrived in Ethiopia and I used smugglers to travel to Sudan. I was beaten, tortured, and starved there” shares Madani Abraha to remind us of the humans behind the crime. Madani’s story is only one of many, and experts state that the narrative around migration has shifted in the context of COVID-19.  Furthermore, the use of mobile money services offers new options for migrants.

The dynamics are constantly changing in the trafficking and smuggling industry. With the emergence of COVID-19 and the increased risk to migrants and refugees across the continent, is there space for new approaches in combating human trafficking? According to Raul Farah, senior analyst at the Global Initiative against transnational organized crime, it does present an opportunity. He states it is “[k]ey to recognize that indiscriminate criminal justice counter-smuggling approach can be counterproductive and that we need to recognize the benefits of migration to economies and build policies to meet the needs of the labour market. […] And apply a harm reduction approach and prioritize the protection of migrants.” Lucia Bird from the Global Initiative against transnational organized crime adds that from a law enforcement perspective, a focus needs to be put on networks affecting the most harm. The quality, not the quantity, of the arrest of traffickers, should be leading. She shares that we are “[s]eeing a surge in irregular migration after COVID.” To avoid an increase in fatalities, there is a need to shift our response frameworks. “There’s no perfect solution but we can do better” Lucia states.

But the role of smugglers remains in the shadow, often demonized by the European media but perceived differently by their local communities. A Nigerian man was arrested in Libya in 2016 for his role in smuggling. He shares how this business is a way of life and migration is for survival. In an interview, he shares that a lot of the people involved in smuggling see it as the only opportunity to make some money in the country, that it is a way to escape poverty and seek a better life. When asked if he regrets going into this line of work: “I regret in a way what is happening to me today. On the other hand, I feel proud because I helped a lot of my people. They are my people, most of them know my house, they know my family.” His story shows that the smuggling business cannot be generalized. That it is simply a service and one that many rely on to move to search for a better life, employment, or flee conflict. The explosion of mobile money across Africa has brought notable benefits banking many of the previously unbanked. Simultaneously, its rise has had some unwelcome consequences.

Nearly 50% of the registered mobile money accounts are in Africa and criminal networks take advantage of the increased interconnectivity and aspirations to open new markets. This has led to criminal networks taking advantage of both, and increasing their cross-border transactions due to weak background checks and limited regulation. According to John Patrick Broome from INTERPOL, organized crime groups have been able to use mobile money in their operations in three ways. Firstly, it allows access to new markets on an international and regional level, which previously were out of reach. Secondly, mobile money services allow laundering illicit money away from its source and finally, the role of anonymity that enables criminals to act in the confidence that they cannot be traced.

These points present the challenges mobile money can pose to law enforcement investigations into smuggling and trafficking networks, and raise the question if mobile money could also be part of the solution in human trafficking and human smuggling. As reported by John Patrick Broome, steps can be taken to tighten organized crime networks using mobile money. He sees a need to develop stronger links between the mobile money services industry and law enforcement, which would ensure that technical expertise exists in our enforcement, better understand criminal methodologies, and close loopholes to organize crime. He concludes by saying that “[w]e have the possibility to harmonize regulations and best practices to inform law enforcement and to remove organized crimes ability to exploit the vulnerable across Africa.”