Corruption and Migration: what is the connection?

By Ortrun Merkle

Listening to migrants’ experiences, corruption plays an important role in shaping both their decisions to migrate as well as the experiences they have along the journey. Researchers have however only recently begun to look at the connection between these two phenomena. Three questions need to be asked when we want to understand how corruption and migration are interlinked: 1) what do we mean with corruption in the context of migration; 2) how does corruption impact peoples’ decision to leave their home country?; and 3) how do people experience corruption throughout their migration journey?

What is corruption?

Corruption is a complex and multi-layered phenomenon. Transparency International, the most prominent anti-corruption NGO, defines it as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. This definition has two important elements: who can have ‘entrusted power’ and what is ‘private gain’?

Entrusted power in general refers to the duties of a public official. Most commonly we distinguish between grand corruption, which takes place at the highest level of government and distorts the overall functioning of the state, and petty corruption, which arises in the encounters between bureaucrats and citizens. Corruption can take many different forms, such as bribery, embezzlement, fraud or extortion. Typically, the private gain we imagine a corrupt official to have is a monetary gain, yet it can also be political power, sexual favours or other non-monetary gains. This nuance is especially important when we talk about corruption encountered during migration as will be discussed below.

So, what role does corruption play in migration? For this it makes sense to split up the migration journey into two parts: the countries of origin and the transit countries.

Leaving home – the role of corruption

Decisions to migrate are complex and multi-faceted and frequently depend on the interplay of many different factors. Over the last decades, a vast array of factors have been shown to be drivers and root causes of migration, yet the role of corruption until now has often been underestimated. In a recent study my colleagues and I mapped the different ways in which corruption can play a role as a driver for migration.

One essential finding is the importance of differentiating between direct and indirect effects of corruption. A direct effect would be when an individual is participating in a corrupt act, for example if someone pays a bribe to a police officer to avoid a speeding ticket. We talk about indirect effects, on the other hand, when the effect of the corrupt act affects third parties indirectly, such as when money intended for the renovation of a school gets lost through corruption, students, teachers and parents face the indirect effects of corruption by not getting an adequately renovated school building. When we took a closer look at the reasons for people to migrate, hardly anyone explicitly said that they left because of the level of corruption in the country. Yet, upon closer inspection, many of the reasons that were given for migration were linked indirectly to corruption.

Different countries of origin certainly have different levels of corruption, and while looking at all the ways that corruption can be linked to decisions to migrate in detail would go beyond the scope of this article, two findings stand out in particular. Lack of (adequate) employment is a common reason for people to search for opportunities elsewhere. One major obstacle for employment that many of our interview partners identified is the high level of nepotism, a form of corruption where officials give favours such as jobs to acquaintances and family even though they do not have the qualification or are not entitled to the benefit. Corruption has also been linked to violent conflict, one major cause of migration, by creating tensions between groups when resources are diverted to favour one group and enabling arms smuggling and smuggling activities of organized crime groups.  

On the way

Our research showed that especially for irregular and forced migrants corruption is a constant struggle. Throughout their journey, they report having to engage in bribes at every step of their journey. Migrants frequently report being asked for payments to cross borders, receive information or help or for police and border officials to turn a blind eye to fake travel documents or missing visas. The Sahara Desert and Libya, where government officials and armed criminal groups have set up checkpoints, have been identified as hot beds for corruption and (sexual) violence. An important aspect is also that inability to pay the demanded price will often lead to severe punishment in the form of physical violence for men and sexual violence for women. As corruption at every step  will further deplete migrants’ resources, the risk of facing this kind of punishment increases with the length of the journey and the resources which the migrant had at the beginning of his or her journey.

Do men and women have different experiences?

The short answer is: yes – the experiences of men and women during migration are fundamentally different, also when it comes to corruption. Gender affects both how one is targeted by corruption as well as the type of corruption one faces. The latter is especially visible during the migration experience. While men typically pay with money, women most frequently have to pay with their body. As one of our interview partners stated: “Women pay with sexual act[s], at every step of the way, every help they need, every interaction they have. They have to pay with sex.” This form of corruption with a sexual component is called ‘sextortion’ and is still often neglected in corruption research.

The areas where women experience corruption in the country of origin also differ. While men regularly encountered police and judicial corruption, women are more frequently exposed to corruption in the health sector, and in certain countries also suffer from high levels of sextortion in the education sector.

Last but not least, women are also often not only the participant in a corrupt exchange, but are the means of exchange themselves. Many of our interview partners confirmed that smugglers used girls in their convoys to pay off border police to allow the entire group to cross.  While we have seen some of the differences in corruption experiences of men and women, much more research remains to be done in order to obtain a full picture of how and why women and men experience corruption differently.

Corruption and migration – what now?

The research on corruption and migration has only just began. Whilst we currently have a glimpse into the complex ways the two phenomena are related, we do not know nearly enough. What we do know for certain, however, is that the role of corruption cannot be underestimated. As corruption has been found to come into play especially whenever legal options for migration are limited, it is necessary to create more legal and safe migration channels, especially for women and girls. We also need to employ a more inclusive approach to corruption, understanding how varied the forms of corruption can be that migrants encounter, and focus on forms of corruption women face, such as sextortion.

Otrun Merkle

Otrun Merkle

PhD Fellow at UNU-Merit/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance since October 2011.  Part of the research team on migration and corruption at the Graduate School of Governance as the expert on corruption and gender.

MA in International Relations/MA in Economics and a Graduate Certificate in Advanced Study in Security Studies, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY.

Certified intercultural trainer and mediator.


  1. Transparency International, n.d.
  2. Merkle, O., Reinold, J., & Siegel, M. (2017). A Study on the Link between Corruption and the Causes of migration and Forced Displacement. Maastricht: GIZ Anti-Corruption and Integrity Programme.
  3. Merkle, O., Reinold, J., & Siegel, M. (2017a). A Gender Perspective on Corruption Encountered During Forced and Irregular Migration. Maastricht: GIZ Anti-Corruption and Integrity Programme.