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Basic guide to corruption and migration

Basic guide to corruption and migration

There are approximately 244 million international migrants worldwide. Among the 68 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by war, conflict and disaster, 25 million have sought refuge abroad. What is the relationship between corruption and these movements of people? Corruption is both a driver and enabler of migration. It also affects humanitarian and development support to migrants and host communities, and it shapes the impact of migration on development outcomes in the country of origin.

Corruption as a driver of migration

Corruption and other governance failures are push factors for human migration. A study on the link between corruption and the causes of migration and forced displacement shows how corruption impairs various components of human security, which in turn drives outward migration. In Nigeria, Bruni and Merkle (PDF), found that corruption in sectors like education, law enforcement and health motivates people to seek better opportunities abroad. Meanwhile, in places affected by violence like Central America and Afghanistan, corruption in the police and security sectors undermines the state’s ability to protect its citizens. This, in turn, forces many to flee.

One response by countries seeking to reduce migration and refugee flows has been to focus development aid towards measures (including anti-corruption efforts) that improve conditions in countries of migrant origin. Addressing root causes is unlikely to reduce migration flows in the short term. The ‘migration hump’ theory explains how increased development creates greater demand and more opportunities to move.

Corruption and smuggling

Corruption is present in all stages of smuggling. In return for personal benefits, immigration officers and others may falsify or forge identity documents, visas and other permits, and fast track their issuance. Corruption enables transporters to avoid checks of vehicles, cargo holders and vessels. Smugglers, border officials, or militia may demand money, goods, or sexual services in exchange for protection or passage. Migrants who refuse or cannot afford such requests may be beaten up or raped.

Paying multiple bribes drains travellers’ resources, leaving no money for the next demand. Migrants are thus even more exposed to the next threat of violence and sexual abuse.

Bruni, V and Merkle, O, Gendered Effects of Corruption on the Central Mediterranean Route, describing the ‘cumulative effects of corruption’ (2018)

On the other hand, corruption can improve immediate security for smuggled migrants. Collusion between smugglers and state officials can make transit routes safer, while smuggling strategies that rely on avoiding border controls involve greater risk. While corruption can serve a positive function in this light, it must be recognised that over time it contributes to greater insecurity, by enabling the illicit trade not only of people but weapons, drugs and terrorist funds.

Therefore, anti-corruption measures aimed at breaking the business model of smuggling should carefully take context into account. Curbing corruption can force migrants to make more dangerous journeys. Another risk is that cracking down on smuggling can destroy one of the only viable livelihoods, without providing alternatives. While corruption control measures may be essential for longer-term security, they may disrupt the fragile dynamics of border regions and increase immediate risks of conflict.

In many regions taxing illicit trade is an accepted element of employment as a state official, and seeking to counter such corruption may act to destabilise local balances of power and further excluding communities for whom such profits are a lifeline.

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, “Understanding Contemporary Human Smuggling as a vector in migration” (2017)

Finally, by cracking down on petty corruption and the ‘small fish’ in smuggling networks, law enforcement actors empower dangerous criminal networks. For example, in Turkey, the government has traditionally permitted human smuggling with little interference. After the influx of migrants into Europe during late 2015 triggered strong control measures like border patrols and the prosecution of smugglers, corruption and collusion among organised crime and state officials took root as central dynamics in the smuggling market there.

Corruption and trafficking in persons

In addition to enabling cross-border transit, corruption exists throughout the trafficking in persons chain (PDF), from recruitment and provision of documents to the criminal justice response. In exchange for money, sexual favours, or other benefits, police and other officials ignore sites where trafficked persons work, or tip off business owners to impending checks. Investigators may pursue smaller offences to cover for the main exploiters. For victims of trafficking, the perception that corruption is rampant may discourage them from reporting.

The OECD has issued Guiding Principles on Combatting Corruption related to Trafficking in Persons which promotes the joint investigation of corruption and trafficking cases.

Corruption and refugee protection

Corrupt practices both facilitate and undermine access to assistance and asylum for refugees and host communities. Because asylum is a limited good, immigration authorities may ask for bribes to fast track applications or grant a positive decision. Other forms of corruption include the inflation of refugee numbers, embezzlement of funds meant for food and other assistance, and the sale of refugee women and girls for the purpose of forced marriage. This LSE blog about the refugee scandal in Uganda describes some of the dynamics of fraud and corruption in refugee settlements. Reporting mechanisms have been introduced in some places, like South Africa (PDF), to identify  and respond to such forms of corruption. One lesson learned is that there must be effective sanctions in place to ensure that such measures have impact.

Corruption and the (re)integration of migrants

Corruption shapes the process of return of migrants to their home countries or their integration in third countries. Access to livelihoods, property and even protection are affected by the dynamics of corruption in the receiving community. In a U4 Brief, Paasche explores how voluntary return schemes supported by many European countries are compromised not only by corruption but also by perceptions of corruption stemming from inefficiencies in assistance delivery. Forthcoming U4 research examines risks of corruption and exploitation in Jordan’s Work Permit Programme for Syrian refugees.


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