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Technology Key To Tackling People Smugglers – Analysis


Human smuggling continues to be a deadly problem. There was a gruesome discovery in Texas this week, with more than 50 migrants found dead in an abandoned truck trailer in a remote area of San Antonio. The US Department of Homeland Security is now leading the investigation into how this tragedy occurred.


San Antonio was the site of a similar tragedy in 2017, when 10 migrants died. They were found with dozens of other people in an unventilated trailer that was left sitting in the summer heat at a Walmart parking lot. This week’s incident once again raises questions about how best to stop such human smuggling events.

Research shows that the market for people smuggling services is, in most cases, not dominated by overarching mafia-like criminal structures that have monopolized all smuggling activities from the source to the destination country. Instead, in many regions, there exists a complex market for highly differentiated smuggling services offered by a multitude of providers, from which potential migrants can choose or be forced into.

It is important to realize that there are various methods of smuggling by land. There is a growing network of communication that broadcasts important information, such as which countries are easier to enter and where borders are open to being breached or where they have been closed. This information influences the decision-making processes of some human smuggling networks. Tracking their transportation services online and the recruitment phase of smuggling, which is often via the Viber app, are now part of the landscape that officials need to address. Understanding the use of emojis in electronic messages and on web pages can provide valuable bits of information.

People smuggling thrives in areas where trucks and other rigs can mix with other vehicles. Thousands of trucks cross borders every day in almost every country around the world. Research shows that smugglers operate their own logistics chains, but with safehouses instead of warehouses.

The same goes for sea-based smuggling, which is the same type of phenomenon except with more deaths. Dying of cold instead of from hot temperatures in a truck is not unknown. Transportation is undoubtedly the deadliest part of any migrant’s journey.


Human smuggling through transport systems is a major concern within the larger context of illicit migration methods. Research shows there is a near-unanimous consensus that people smuggling relies on a series of socially embedded networks, rather than hierarchical and rule-bound organizations. Much of the research has gone on to refute the organized crime thesis, or at least amended it by considerable degrees. Much of the criticism of the organized crime thesis was justified, as well-structured smuggling organizations were not observed and may never have played a major role in human smuggling. Smugglers act as important intermediate agents embedded in wider global markets for migration.

Transportation and technology mix in this smuggling industry. Even though some countries use sophisticated undercarriage X-ray systems and K-9 teams, the original point of departure for smuggling rings is vital to detection. Recall that some tragedies have occurred once the smuggling victims are at their final destination. The 2017 San Antonio event was because of a local smuggling operation, which was able to load migrants onto trucks more frequently than customs and law enforcement agencies could keep up with.

Addressing human smuggling is concerned with the modus operandi of smugglers and their social organization, as well as how this relates to managing or criminalizing their activities. Containers and other box-like crates for human transport are not only inhuman but an issue that can perhaps be best addressed with more radio-frequency identification detection, known as RFID, requirements. The cloning of license plates is a major issue as smugglers use it to avoid tracking by law enforcement. Adding a technological solution to this problem could perhaps cut down on incidents.

Finally, advocacy groups’ ability to help prevent migrants from entering the system in the first place can be beneficial. Building on programs designed by nongovernmental organizations can help address the point-of-origin issues by stopping migrants before they enter into the transportation system. In recent years, some actors have been accompanying and facilitating the transit of migrant families to avoid the transportation segment. Building on such efforts is important for policymakers.

Overall, knowing the communication networks and tracking trucks may offer possible solutions in terms of cutting down on vehicular transport, which would hopefully help prevent tragedies such as those seen in Texas. No one solution will stop these tragedies from occurring but their likelihood can be decreased with unity of effort in tracking and better use of technology and social work.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former Advisor and Director of Research for a number of UAE institutions. Dr. Karasik was a Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, Middlesex University Dubai, and the University of Wollongong Dubai where he taught “Labor and Migration” and “Global Political Economy” at the graduate level. Dr. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. Throughout Dr. Karasik’s career, he has worked for numerous U.S. agencies involved in researching and analyzing defense acquisition, the use of military power, and religio-political issues across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia, including the evolution of violent extremism. Dr. Karasik lived in the UAE for 10 years and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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