AskDefine | Define smuggling

Dictionary Definition

smuggling n : secretly importing prohibited goods or goods on which duty is due

User Contributed Dictionary




Extensive Definition

Smuggling, also known as trafficking, is the clandestine transportation of goods or persons past a point where prohibited, such as out of a building, into a prison, or across an international border, in violation of the law or other rules.
There are various motivations to smuggle, most but not all of which are financial. These include the participation in illegal trade, such as drugs, illegal immigration or emigration, tax evasion, providing contraband to a prison inmate, or the theft of the item(s) being smuggled. Examples of non-financial motivations include bringing banned items past a security checkpoint (such as airline security) or the removal of classified documents from a government or corporate office.


The word probably comes from the Common Germanic verb smeugan (Old Norse smjúga) = "to creep into a hole". Other sources say it comes from the word smooky (fog) which was used in West Flanders.

Smuggled goods and people

Much smuggling occurs when enterprising merchants attempt to supply demand for a good or service which is illegal. As a result, illegal drug trafficking, and the smuggling of weapons (illegal arms trade), as well as the historical staples of smuggling, alcohol and tobacco, are widespread. As the smuggler faces significant risk of civil and criminal penalties if caught with contraband, smugglers are able to impose a significant price premium on smuggled goods. The profits involved in smuggling goods appears to be extensive.
Profits also derive from avoiding taxes or levies on imported goods. For example, a smuggler might purchase a large quantity of cigarettes in a place with low taxes and smuggle them into a place with higher taxes, where they can be sold at a far higher margin than would otherwise be possible. It has been reported that smuggling one truckload of cigarettes within the United States can lead to a profit of US $2 million.
With regard to people smuggling, a distinction can be made between people smuggling as a service to those wanting to illegally migrate, and the involuntary trafficking of people. An estimated 90% of people who illegally crossed the border between Mexico and the United States are believed to have paid a smuggler to lead them across the border.
People smuggling can also be used to rescue a person from oppressive circumstances. For example, when the Southern United States allowed slavery, many slaves moved north via the underground railroad. Similarly, during the holocaust, Jews were smuggled out of Germany by people such as Algoth Niska.

Smuggling methods

With regard to crossing borders we can distinguish concealment of the whole transport or concealment of just the smuggled goods:
  • Avoiding border checks, such as by small ships, private airplanes, through overland smuggling routes, smuggling tunnels and even small submersibles. This also applies for illegally passing a border oneself, for illegal immigration or illegal emigration. In many parts of the world, particularly the Gulf of Mexico, the smuggling vessel of choice is the go-fast boat.
  • Submitting to border checks with the goods or people hidden in a vehicle or between (other) merchandise, or the goods hidden in lugguage, in or under clothes, inside the body (see body cavity search and balloon swallower), etc. Many smugglers fly on regularly scheduled airlines. A large number of suspected smugglers are caught each year by customs worldwide. Goods and people are also smuggled across seas hidden in containers, and overland hidden in cars, trucks, and trains. A related topic is illegally passing a border oneself as a stowaway. The high level of duty levied on alcohol and tobacco in Britain has led to large-scale smuggling from France to the UK through the Channel Tunnel.
For illegally passing a border oneself, another method is with a false passport (completely fake, or illegally changed, or the passport of a lookalike).

Currency smuggling

Legal definition

In popular perception smuggling is synonymous as illegal trade. Even social scientists have misconstrued smuggling as illegal trade . While the two have indeed identical objectives, namely evasion of taxes and/or importation of contraband items, their demand and cost functions are altogether different requiring different analytical framework. So illegal trade through customs stations should be differently considered, and smuggling should be defined as international trade through ‘unauthorized route’. A seaport, airport or land port which has not been authorized by the government for importaiton and exportaiton is an ‘unauthorized route’. Normally legal definition occurs in the Customs Act of the country. Notably, some definitions include any 'undeclared' trafficking of currency and precious metal like gold in the fold os smuggling. Smuggling is a cognizable offense in which both the smuggled goods and the goods are punishable.


Smuggling has a long and controversial history, probably dating back to the first time at which duties were imposed in any form.
In Britain, smuggling became economically significant at the end of the 18th century, although of course it was carried out to a greater or lesser extent prior to this high-water mark. The high rates of duty levied on wine and spirits, and other luxury goods coming in from mainland Europe at this time made the clandestine import of such goods and the evasion of the duty a highly profitable venture for impoverished fishermen and seafarers. In certain parts of the country such as the Romney Marsh, East Kent, Cornwall and East Cleveland, the smuggling industry was for many communities more economically significant than legal activities such as farming and fishing. The principal reason for the high duty was the need for the government to finance a number of extremely expensive wars with France and the United States of America.
In North America, smuggling in colonial times was a reaction to the heavy taxes and regulations imposed by mercantilist trade policies. After American independence in 1783, smuggling developed at the edges of the United States at places like Passamaquoddy Bay, St. Mary's in Georgia, Lake Champlain, and Louisiana. During Jefferson's embargo of 1807-1809, these same places became the primary places where goods were smuggled out of the nation in defiance of the law. Like Britain, a gradual liberalization of trade laws as part of the free trade movement meant less smuggling. Smuggling revived in the 1920s during Prohibition, and drug smuggling became a major problem after 1970. In the 1990'es, when economic sanctions were imposed on Serbia, a large percent of the population lived off smuggling petrol and consumer goods from neighboring countries. The state unofficially allowed this to continue or otherwise the entire economy would've collapsed.
In modern times, as many first-world countries have struggled to contain a rising influx of immigrants, the smuggling of people across national borders has become a lucrative extra-legal activity, as well as the extremely dark side, people-trafficking, especially of women who may be enslaved typically as prostitutes.

Human trafficking

Trafficking in human beings, sometimes called human trafficking, or sex trafficking (as the majority of victims are women or children forced into prostitution) is not the same as people smuggling. A smuggler will facilitate illegal entry into a country for a fee, but on arrival at their destination, the smuggled person is free; the trafficking victim is enslaved. Victims do not agree to be trafficked: they are tricked, lured by false promises, or forced into it. Traffickers use coercive tactics including deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force, debt bondage or even force-feeding with drugs to control their victims. Whilst the majority of victims are women, and sometimes children, forced into prostitution, other victims include men, women and children forced or conned into manual or cheap labor. Due to the illegal nature of trafficking, the exact extent is unknown. A US Government report published in 2003, estimates that 800,000-900,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally.

Child trafficking

Smuggling children from Yemen into Saudi Arabia is rampant as the smuggled children contribute to the family income. According to a study by Alternatives to Combat Child Labour Through Education and Sustainable Services in the Middle East and North Africa Region (ACCESS-MENA) 30 percent of school children living in border villages of Yemen had been smuggled into Saudi Arabia. Smuggled children were in danger of being sexually abused or even killed. Poverty is one of the reasons behind child trafficking and some children are smuggled with their parents' consent.

Human trafficking and migration

Each year, hundreds of thousands of migrants are moved illegally by highly organized international smuggling and trafficking groups, often in dangerous or inhumane conditions. This phenomenon has been growing in recent years as people of low income countries are aspirig to enter developed countries in search of job. Migrant smuggling and human trafficking are two separate offences and differ in a few central respects. While 'smuggling' refers to facilitating the illegal entry of a person into a State, ‘trafficking’ includes an element of exploitation. The trafficker retains control over the migrant -- through force, fraud or coercion -- typically in the sex industry, through forced labour or through other practices similar to slavery. Trafficking violates basic human rights, and the unfortunate reality is that an overwhelming majority of those trafficked are women and children. These victims are commodities in a multi-billion dollar global industry. Criminal organizations are choosing to traffic human beings because, unlike other commodities, people can be used repeatedly and because trafficking requires little in terms of capital investment. Smuggling is also reaping huge financial dividends to criminal groups who charge migrants massive fees for their services. Intelligence reports have noted that drug-traffickers and other criminal organizations are switching to human cargo to obtain greater profit with less risk. It is acknowledged that the smuggling of people is a growing global phenomenon. It is not only a transnational crime, but also an enormous violation of human rights and a contemporary form of slavery. Currently, economic instability appears to be the main reason for illegal migration movement throughout the world. Nevertheless, many of the willing migrants undertake the hazardous travel to their destination country with criminal syndicates specialised in people smuggling. These syndicates arrange everything for the migrants, but at a high price. Very often the travelling conditions are inhumane: the migrants are overcrowded in trucks or boats and fatal accidents occur frequently. After their arrival in the destination country, their illegal status puts them at the mercy of their smugglers, which often force the migrants to work for years in the illegal labour market to pay off the debts incurred as a result of their transportation.

Economics of Smuggling

Research on smuggling as economic phenomenon is scanty. Bhagwati and Hansen first forwarded a theory of smuggling in which they saw smuggling essentially as an import-substituting economic activity. Their main consideration, however, was the welfare implications of smuggling. Against common belief that private sector is more efficient than the public sector, they showed that, smuggling might not enhance social welfare though it may divert resources from government to private sector. In contrast, Chowdhury, in 1999, suggested a production-substituting model of smuggling in which price disparity due to cost of supply is critically important as an incentive for smuggling. This price disparity is caused by domestic consumption taxes as well as import duties. Drawing attention to the case of cigarettes, Chowdhury suggested that, in Bangladesh, smuggling of cigarettes reduced the level of domestic production. Domestic production of cigarettes is subject to VAT and other consumption tax. Reduction of domestic taxes enables the local producer to supply at a lower cost and bring down the price disparity that encourages smuggling. However, Chowdhury suggested that there is a limit beyond which reducing domestic taxes on production cannot be feasible for adding competitive advantage vis-à-vis smuggled cigarettes. Therefore, government needs to upscale its anti-smuggling drive so that seizures can add to the cost of smuggling and render smuggling uncompetitive thereby. Notably, Chowdhury modelled the case of the smuggler vis-a-vis the local producer as one of antagonistic duopoly.
Organizations working against Trafficking:


Further reading

  • Mary Waugh, Smuggling in Kent and Sussex 1700-1840 (Countryside Books, 1985, updated 2003) ISBN 0 905392 48 5
  • Joshua M. Smith, Borderland Smuggling: Patriots, Loyalists and Illicit Trade in the Northeast, 1783-1820 (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2006).
smuggling in Catalan: Contraban
smuggling in German: Schmuggel
smuggling in Spanish: Contrabando
smuggling in Esperanto: Kontrabando
smuggling in Persian: قاچاق
smuggling in French: Contrebande
smuggling in Italian: Contrabbando
smuggling in Lithuanian: Kontrabanda
smuggling in Dutch: Smokkelen
smuggling in Japanese: 密輸
smuggling in Norwegian: Smugling
smuggling in Portuguese: Contrabando
smuggling in Russian: Контрабанда
smuggling in Serbian: Кријумчарење
smuggling in Finnish: Salakuljetus
smuggling in Swedish: Smuggling
smuggling in Vlaams: Blauwn
smuggling in Chinese: 走私
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