Human smuggling / Human smuggling and human trafficking: what is the difference and why does it matter?

It’s important to distinguish between human smuggling and human trafficking to develop appropriate responses.

What is human smuggling?

  • Human smuggling, or the smuggling of migrants, is securing or aiding the illegal entry of a person into a state in which they are not a national or permanent resident, for financial or other material benefit.

What is human trafficking?

  • Human trafficking is the coercion, abduction or fraudulent recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of people for the purpose of exploitation. This normally involves an abuse of power or taking advantage of vulnerable people without their consent.

How are they similar?

  • The two crimes are not the same, but have been used interchangeably in the mass media – in particular with the focus on Europe’s migrant crisis (where most migrants are African).
  • People on the move can be subject to exploitation and abuse along their journey, including forms of human trafficking such as forced labour or sexual exploitation.

What are the key differences?

  • Consent – migrants normally consent to being smuggled while a trafficked person has been forced into an activity against their will.
  • Purpose – smugglers complete their interaction with migrants once they have been moved, while traffickers continue to exploit people.
  • Borders – while smuggling always happens across borders, trafficking can occur within a state – even within a community.

Why does it matter?

  • For policy-makers and practitioners, it’s important to distinguish between the experiences, to develop appropriate responses.
  • Responding to the crime of smuggling with anti-trafficking activity will do little to reduce the scale of irregular migration or reduce its associated risks. In fact, it might increase them.

ENACT’s approach

  • Be clear and consistent with definitions of human smuggling and human trafficking to assist appropriate policy responses to both these distinct forms of organised crime.
  • Build up the evidence base and policy tools for human smuggling specifically, as these are understudied.


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ENACT is funded by the European Union
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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.