In April 2023, ahead of the final debates on the Illegal Migration Bill, now Act, then-UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that migrants crossing the English Channel were linked to “heightened levels of criminality,” with “many people are coming here illegally and they’re getting very quickly involved in the drugs trade,” a claim offered with no evidence. The claim that migrants are bringing drugs across borders, into Europe or other Western destinations needs to be seriously factchecked.
Is there actually any evidence that those crossing borders irregularly are engaging with the drugs trade? And are they bringing drugs with them to the UK?
Linked – but not interlinked
Similar accusations are common in the United States, with the popular misconception that drugs are being brought into the country from Mexico by foreign agents. However, in reality, this is a very small number: a CATO study highlighted that in 2021, convicted fentanyl smugglers were ten times more likely to be U.S. citizens than irregular migrants. Using American citizens makes sense: the same study underscored how drugs are 97% less likely to be stopped at a legal crossing point than people trying to cross irregularly. Why use those who already have a huge target on their backs to sneak drugs across international borders?
In Europe, there have been a number of high-profile busts where people being smuggled were travelling with other contraband. In September 2019, Spanish and French National Police alongside Europol targeted a criminal network that was breaking unaccompanied minors out of protection centres in Spain and transporting them on buses to France. The same bus network was simultaneously used to traffic hashish.
This case suggests an increasing diversification of criminal networks’ business models, as they see the enormous potential for profit in people smuggling. The volume of drugs being moved by these so-called ‘poly-criminal’ networks is modest in comparison to dedicated narcotic trafficking operations, who are able to explore much wider forms of drug hiding and trafficking that cannot be done the same for people. However, there seems to be a commercial acknowledgement that your profit margins can be maximised if you use people smuggling routes to send other prohibited merchandise like drugs, given one “good” is being transported anyway.
There have also been reports of close links between drug trafficking and people smuggling operations across the Mediterranean Sea. It’s also not uncommon for drug smuggling routes to be used for people: the Western Balkan route, traditionally used for opiate trafficking, has become a key people smuggling path into Europe since 2015. When those being smuggled are carrying drugs, they are often doing it unwillingly, used as drug mules across into the US or Europe. The profits from the sale of these drugs does not go to the migrants, it goes to those receiving them in the final stage of their journey.
Smuggling in a workforce
In the UK, there is little hard evidence that drugs are entering the country with migrants. Much like the American example, it makes little business sense to smuggle drugs along with groups of people who are so rabidly hunted by the authorities, especially when so little care is taken over their safe passage. There is however an advantage in smuggling over people that are indebted to you for their passage, who can remain in service to you and your operations. In the last few years, with control over the Channel crossing shifting from Afghan criminal groups to Albanians, a worrying trend has developed. Albanian groups have been reported to be paying for the crossings of migrants recruited in northern French camps to come and work in drugs operations in the UK, into de facto debt bondage.
So, whilst there is little to no evidence of migrants entering the country with drugs, the relationship between the movement of people and the illegal drugs trade is very real. Their involvement with the drug trade comes as a consequence of their smuggling, rather than their initial motivation. Some people smuggled into the UK go on to be trafficked once they arrive, further entrenching them within the drug industry.
It is worth clarifying at this point the difference between people smuggling and people trafficking. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they have discrete legal meanings. Whilst both involve the illegal movement of people, smuggling is provided as a service to those who are being moved; whereas those being trafficked are being moved against their will, under the control of another, by means of coercion, abduction or threat. In practice, the two are closely connected, and those who are smuggled across borders are often vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking.
Tragically, this has been the case for many of the unaccompanied children missing from Home Office hotels, hundreds of whom are still unaccounted for. These young people, amongst the most vulnerable in the asylum system, have been found across the UK, and some across borders in Ireland. Many children end up in indentured work as drug sellers or cultivators in what is nationally known as “county lines” drug trafficking arrangements. Operation Innerste, a multi-agency safeguarding initiative set up to combat trafficking, has had a questionable impact. As part of their evidence gathering, Operation Innerste was revealed to collect biometric data from children (and even the content of their phones) which is then given to immigration authorities, meaning it could be used against their asylum claims.
While on the surface it is true that many people who enter the country become quickly involved with the drugs trade, the reasons for their involvement are complex – and they are about to become more complicated, particularly in the UK. Dubbed “inhumane and unworkable” by the Refugee Council, the British Illegal Migration Act is set to implement a broken asylum system that will make it essentially impossible to claim asylum in the UK as it gradually comes into use.
Incarcerating people or leaving them with no realistic mechanism to return to their country of origin, or pushing them into a “safe” third country (an option highly criticised by countless experts) means that huge numbers of people will lose their chance to apply for asylum while remaining stranded in the UK, or in a British prison abroad. This not only creates an incentive for irregular migrants to remain out of the British legal system, but it also limits people’s work options, encouraging them to remain involved in criminal industries, such as people smuggling or drug selling.
Until safe routes are established, those seeking asylum will continue to risk their lives to reach the UK and risk their freedom once they arrive. The forces pushing people to migrate, legally or not, are only set to become stronger as climate change displaces more and more people. People will continue to migrate, increasingly in greater numbers, forced to subject themselves to the desires of those organising their movement, including whether they will carry drugs or have to work within the illegal drug market.
We cannot continue to condemn criminal gangs treating people seeking asylum as commodities when governments like the UK do exactly that – both through their treatment in our asylum process and the hyperbolic anti-migration narrative. As long as countries continue to villainise and disenfranchise those whom they have an international duty to support, there will always be a ready supply of vulnerable people for criminal markets.