People smuggling and cargo security

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Picture of Danny Ramon
Danny Ramon

Intelligence & Response Manager - Overhaul

Illegal immigration into Europe and the United States has continued to rise in recent years, and several high-profile incidents in the past few months have raised the awareness of the risks of people smuggling. The 53 dead migrants found in a trailer in San Antonio in June 2022 is just one example in a long list of incidents highlighting the human costs. The arrival of 1,200 migrants in Italy on a single day in late July is a headlinemaking example of the rapidly increasing trending in illegal migration driven by political events and shortages in food and fuel in the developing world.

For shippers and carriers, increased migration and people smuggling means increased risks to cargo integrity, operational risks and delays. A 2017 survey of freight companies in the EU found that 89% of respondents had suffered losses of up to €50,000 per incident involving illegal migrants, primarily due to cargo damage but also vehicle damage or driver injury.

Illegal migration in the United States and Europe

As well as the obvious pull of life in a more affluent society, geopolitical factors play a key role in the level of illegal immigration, and recent years have seen a significant increase in migrants trying to enter Europe and the United States.

Conflict, climate change, food shortages and political factors are all significant and in some cases increasing reasons for migration. While the war in Syria was a key driver in the European refugee crisis in 2015, since 2021 the fall of Afghanistan and tensions between Western Europe and Belarus have led to increased flows of migrants and a corresponding increase in migrant smuggling.

The borders between Belarus, Poland and Lithuania have seen a ten-fold increase since 2020, mainly due to the Belarussian government’s efforts to weaponise the flow of migrants, primarily from Iraq, as an asymmetric attack on Western Europe. There are several established routes for people smuggling into Europe.

According to Frontex, while the number of people crossing to Europe by the Eastern Mediterranean route has dropped significantly from its 2019 height, the West African route into the Canary Islands and the main Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy have increased significantly over the same period. Second only to the Central Mediterranean route, migration through the Western Balkans has been resurgent after a dip following the 2015 crisis, with a Frontex estimate of a 124% increase in border crossings and over 55,000 crossings in the first half of 2022 alone.

Although the trafficking of people across the Mediterranean in boats does not impact the logistics industry directly, once in Europe the vast majority of trafficked migrants continue their journey to destination countries such as Germany, Sweden or the UK by land, often as stowaways in heavy freight vehicles.

The UK remains a destination country for migrants from all over the world. In 2021 detected arrivals by boat exploded to more than 28,000, three times the 9,000 detected arrivals by goods vehicle or container. Recent statistics from Frontex also show an 87% increase in Channel crossing for the first half of 2022. Arrivals by lorries or containers still average around 8,500 per annum since 2014 though, and it seems likely that a higher proportion of migrants arriving by vehicle go undetected than those crossing by boat.

As well as organised smuggling attempts migrants also break into trailers around the ports of Northern France and Belgium, and so-called “axle hangers” cling to the underneath of trucks to make the crossing. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that 97% of illegal immigrants to the US enter over the Mexican border, where the people smuggling industry is worth an estimated $6.6 billion a year, but the penalties for people smuggling are much less severe than those for drug trafficking. Between January and May of this year 523,000 migrants have been prevented from crossing, although the number of successful crossings is unknown.

Poor socio-economic and security conditions are long-term drivers of migration from South and Central America into the US, with an average of 407,000 migrants leaving three Central American states alone each year.  The year 2021 saw a 228% increase in people smuggling incidents in Mexico, with a notable increase of refugees from Haiti. With worsening inflation and cost of living rises, the number of people attempting to cross into the US is only likely to increase.

Methods of Smuggling

While many illegal immigrants are initially brought to Europe by boat via the Mediterranean routes, onward travel within Europe is identified by Europol as being conducted primarily by vehicle.

In the case of organised smuggling gangs this often involves high-risk concealment methods, whereas for opportunist stowaways it can include breaking into trailers, threatening drivers and clinging to the outside of vehicles.

Broadly speaking there are two categories of illegal migrants being transported. Stowaways are generally opportunists who, having made it to a border crossing such as the English Channel, break into trailers of legitimate cargoes without the knowledge or complicity of the driver in order to make the crossing. Trucks are targeted while at rest near a port, sometimes due to delays from port capacity
issues, but migrants also attempt to board trailers
while they are moving slowly through towns. Curtain-sided trailers are particularly prone to infiltration
but poorly secured containers or hard-sided trucks
are also vulnerable, and migrants usually form small groups to provide mutual help in breaking into
trailers. Most incidents of migrant infiltration are not
initially detected by drivers, but some involve bribes, threats or even violence being used.

Organised smuggling gangs are present in all European countries. While Albanian organised criminal groups are deeply involved through their control of European ports, arrests of trafficking groups across Europe in recent years have uncovered
international people smuggling rings of numerous
ethnicities and nationalities. In late 2021 a largely Syrian criminal group was found smuggling migrants from Greece to Germany for €3,500-4,500 a head, while in February Spanish police led the prosecution of a Romanian-led gang using the Balkan route to smuggle Pakistanis from Bosnia & Herzegovina into Italy and Spain. These smuggling gangs provide logistical support to migrants as well as transport. They also have more sophisticated methods than the opportunists, with methods such as custom-made hides in trailers to conceal migrants and often recruit drivers willing to risk smuggling for financial reward.

Similarly people smugglers operating across the US-Mexican border vary between the so-called coyotes, which act more as guides for those crossing on foot, and the polleros that smuggle migrants in vehicles or hidden compartments for a larger fee. People smuggling in Northern Mexico was traditionally carried out by small, specialised groups but the industry is now increasingly controlled by much
larger and more violent cartels.


228 percent

increase in people smuggling incidents in Mexico

44 percent

of the Mexican road network consists
of modern, paved roads

Security measures

Despite the problems illegal immigration cause states, the sheer volume of container and freight traffic makes thorough customs checks impossible. Although security and customs at points of entry employ a variety of searching techniques, including thermal scanning and CO2 “sniffers” to detect stowaways, manpower shortages and the commercial need to keep cargo moving means the vast majority of cargo goes unchecked and attempts to increase screening causes unsustainable disruption. In Texas, Operation Lonestar – introduced in 2021 after the Biden administration repealed Title 42 – drew criticisms that the additional cargo checks on Northbound trucks by state police were disrupting the supply chain and causing food shortages.


It also caused gridlock at US-Mexico border crossings in April as angry truckers blocked major highways in protest against the increased scrutiny and delays. The inability of states to fully secure their borders is not helped by the often lax security measures implemented by many carriers. Migrants are able to gain access to a moving trailer with comparative ease simply because the doors are insufficiently secured. Driver involvement in smuggling is to some extent inevitable, but could be mitigated with better cargo visibility to flag suspicious activity. Forward-looking intelligence to warn of illegal migration hotspots and smuggling routes will also help in avoiding delays from security crackdowns and corresponding protests or migrant congregations.

Final word

As figures from Europe and the US show we are already seeing a significant increase in illegal migration and people smuggling. In Europe Aija Kalnaja, the interim executive director of the Frontex, has recently warned of a fresh wave of illegal immigration to Europe driven by the growing food crisis in the developing world. Given the difficulties authorities have in coping with the existing flow it seems entirely plausible that migration levels could meet or even surpass those of the 2015 crisis in Europe. If this is the case, scenes such as those of the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais or the increasingly large migrant caravans heading to the US-Mexico borders could well force governments towards increasing border checks and disrupt supply lines in an effort to tackle the crisis, creating increased risk to cargo, operations, carriers and their drivers.

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