• Gabriel de Boisdeffre | Immigration and Border Governance Assistant, Regional Office, San Jose

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is a grouping 15 member states, home to approximately nineteen million citizens, stretching from the Bahamas and Belize to Suriname and Guyana. CARICOM comprises states and territories with varying income levels, development outcomes, language profiles, ethnic groups, economic structures, and political systems. The geographical features, porous borders, and economic disparities in the Caribbean region provide conditions easily exploitable by criminal networks, especially those involved in the smuggling of migrants, firearms, narcotics, and human trafficking. These crimes contribute to regional instability and insecurity. Within this context, CARICOM has just adopted a regional legislation related to fight against the migrant smuggling for all its member states and is in the process of developing, with the support of IOM and UNODC, its regulations and standard operational procedures. 

Why has CARICOM become a hotspot for both regional and international migrant smuggling?   

Long-term migration patterns in the Caribbean can be characterized by two principal dynamics. The first is emigration from the region, mainly towards North America and Europe – 7 out of 10 Caribbean migrants in the world in 2020 lived in the United States alone. The second pattern is intra-regional migration, largely characterized by the movement from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, by emigration from Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic to other territories and countries in the region, including the Bahamas. More recently, the movement of refugees and migrants from Venezuela has added complex challenges to migration, especially in the neighboring countries of the South Caribbean. 

The region is now a stepping stone for irregular migrants seeking to reach the United States, given its location at a crossroads between North and South America. Smugglers' networks use Caribbean countries as transit points to move hundreds of migrants, even from other continents, but many sometimes find themselves stranded or abandoned and must continue alone. According to the Missing Migrants project, migration routes in the Caribbean have the second-highest number of migrant deaths and disappearances. Nearly 1,180 migrants have been reported dead or missing, with drowning accounting for 93% of the total for the period from 2016 to 2022. However, the reported total figures are likely a significant underestimate of the actual losses. 

Why is this legislation essential to combat migrant smuggling? 

While many countries around the world have improved their legislation in the past years with the intention to prevent and fight migrant smuggling, several Caribbean countries have not yet updated their legal frameworks. This, therefore, poses a challenge to collectively combatting migrant smuggling, creating loopholes that criminals can exploit and also posing challenges to local, regional and international cooperation and coordination. The absence or inadequacy of legislation can effectively impede the prosecution of smugglers and the protection of migrants.  

Updating legislation on smuggling of migrants plays a key role in safeguarding vulnerable individuals and intercepting and dismantling criminal networks.  

By establishing a legal framework to protect the rights and security of migrants, states can contribute to preventing the exploitation and dangers often associated with irregular migration and discourage migrants from resorting to these networks by establishing safer migration practices. Updated laws, in line with international standards, can ensure the criminalization of smugglers instead of criminalizing migrants and enable law enforcement agencies to target and disrupt organized smuggling operations. Moreover, these laws facilitate international cooperation by aligning with global efforts to combat transnational crime, allowing countries to collaborate effectively in addressing the complexity of cross-border smuggling. The legal framework also enables the allocation of resources to address transnational crimes, allowing, for example, the creation of specialized units, training programs, and support systems. 

Legislation on the smuggling of migrants serves as a cornerstone to promote ethical migration, respect human rights, and maintain the rule of law in the context of border management and the fight against transnational criminal activities. In the CARICOM, the development of regional legislation means that several countries can share similar measures on migrant smuggling, offering significant benefits, including making legal processes more efficient, improving cooperation, collaboration, and relations, reducing costs and procedural complexity, and enhancing cross-border security. 

Furthemore, a robust legislation on migrant smuggling also contributes to the fight against various other crimes, in particular trafficking in persons. The migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons share connections through vulnerable populations, as those initially seeking irregular migration assistance might end up in exploitative trafficking situations. Criminal networks involved in smuggling can sometimes collaborate with traffickers, blurring the lines between these two activities. However, it is crucial to understand that, while linked, smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons remain distinct, with smuggling focusing on irregular border crossing and trafficking centered on exploitation of the rights of victims. Effectively tackling migrant smuggling disrupts the routes that traffickers can exploit, hence reducing opportunities that traffickers can use to exploit vulnerable people.  

The CARICOM is a region full of vitality and unity; however, the increasing migration flows, related increases in deaths at sea during irregular migration, and the financial benefit to smugglers and other criminals and crime networks, has underlined the need to prioritize the fight against migrant smuggling. A comprehensive approach is needed, with collaborative work across sectors and countries in order to create safer Caribbean societies for all its people, including migrants. 

By adopting legislation on the smuggling of migrants, CARICOM’s countries are engaging themselves further in the fight against transnational and local criminality and aim to create a more secure space in the region.  

To learn more about how CARICOM, IOM and UNODC are working together to fight smuggling, click here

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