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Expert Voice: What Makes People Resilient to Human Trafficking along Migration Routes to Europe?

3 April 2019


The best way to understand the situation on migration routes to Europe is to listen to people who have made the journey. Our latest research study, “The Strength to Carry On - Resilience and Vulnerability to Trafficking and Other Abuses among People Travelling along Migration Routes to Europe”, analyses people’s resilience and vulnerabilities to human trafficking and other abuses in this context. The research found that understanding factors of resilience can help to prevent trafficking, and that resilience can be boosted or compromised by migration policies and practices.

By Dr. Claire Healy

The country researchers for the study interviewed 91 people who had travelled or were travelling along the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkan and Central Mediterranean routes. They also interviewed 245 people who were responding to the arrival of people along migration routes, on behalf of governments, civil society and international organisations. For all involved, the research was a learning experience in three crucial ways.

First, we designed the research as a multi-country project, analysing the national perspective in each of the seven countries under study. It rapidly became clear, however, that from the point of view of people on the move, it was not about national contexts. They are en route to a final intended destination, a journey that may be delayed or diverted in unexpected ways. Countries along the route have struggled, and are struggling, to respond in a coordinated fashion, and there may be a discrepancy between national responses and the needs of people on the move.

Second, researching a subject that has garnered so much attention in the media, in politics, and among policy-makers and fellow researchers, we were aware that it could be difficult to identify new and relevant findings. Yet the reality was quite to the contrary. Little empirical, qualitative research has focused on the experiences of people travelling the routes, with particular gaps in relation to experiences of human trafficking and factors of resilience and vulnerability to trafficking. We found widespread indications of potential trafficking cases and other abuses, cases that had not previously come to light, and require urgent responses.

Third, “The Strength to Carry On” is ICMPD’s first piece of research on factors of resilience to human trafficking and other abuses – a rich source for understanding what can actually prevent trafficking from taking place. Resilience to trafficking and other abuses is understood as the factors that contribute to preventing abuses from occurring. Resilience refers to the more positive aspects of the experience of the migratory journey and focuses on those people who were not abused or exploited – and why that was so.

The Paradox of ‘Vulnerable Groups’ and the Presumption of Resilience
Personal factors are not in themselves sources of resilience or vulnerability to trafficking. Rather, they interact with contextual factors in specific ways to increase resilience or exacerbate vulnerability. Women and girls are at higher risk of sex trafficking, as well as ‘survival sex’ (the exchange of sex for a good or service that the person needs). Men and boys are generally considered more resilient, yet they are exposed to specific vulnerabilities.

In some cases, the presumption of their resilience among many state and NGO service providers may in fact exacerbate their vulnerabilities. Single adult men are a vulnerable group precisely because they are considered the least vulnerable, and because they are more likely to be victims of physical violence perpetrated by law enforcement, smugglers or other people on the move. The majority of unaccompanied and separated children using the routes are boys, and unaccompanied boys are a particular at-risk group for trafficking.

This creates a paradox of ‘vulnerable groups’, whereby people considered the most vulnerable tend to have better access to services en route and in destination contexts, while people not considered vulnerable are actually rendered more vulnerable due to lack of access.

Resilience of Families and Children

When children travel in the company of one or both parents, this is a key source of resilience. Nevertheless, three crucial issues can be detrimental to the resilience of children travelling with parents: children may appear to be travelling with their parents or family members, but in fact this is not the case; a child’s parent or parents may be abusing and/or exploiting them; or children may become separated from their parents along the route. Families can become separated by accident, as a travel strategy, because of border control operations, or by smugglers in order to extort money. This is a key moment of increased vulnerability for children, as well as increasing the vulnerability of adults who may be desperate to urgently reunite with their children.

It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of unaccompanied children are not orphans, but rather have become separated from their parents or guardians at some stage, either on departure from their country of origin or during the journey. If an unaccompanied child is correctly identified by the authorities of the country they are in, they can be provided with the specialised services that they are entitled to (legal guardian, specialised accommodation, etc.) and are then more resilient to exploitation and abuse in general. However, the resilience of many unaccompanied children, even if they are correctly identified, is compromised by a lack of trained guardians with the capacity to take care of these children.

Resilience and vulnerability are determined by migration policies and practices
A key driver of resilience to almost all forms of trafficking and other abuses is the possibility to travel regularly by plane, with an entry visa for an EU country. For the small proportion of people who managed to travel regularly, such as through a refugee resettlement programme, community sponsorship programme, a tourism, work or study visa, or family reunification procedures, the journey was cheaper and safer, and they were more resilient to trafficking and other abuses. In the destination context, this also means that for many of them their legal status is already regular, and they can seek employment or enter education.

In the absence of options for regular air travel, the possibility of legal travel by sea and/or overland is the next best source of resilience. This possibility was available to many people, at least for some sections of their trip from Greece to Germany and other EU countries, from mid-2015 to March 2016. So these people, and especially those among them who had higher chances of being granted international protection in an EU country, like Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis, had a more positive experience of the journey.

The restrictions on movement and mobility that have been progressively imposed by European countries since 2016 have significantly increased the vulnerabilities of people using the routes. Even if, logically, people wish to travel as cheaply and safely as possible, changing policies and restricting laws and measures leave them with few options but to make a costly, long, dangerous and irregular journey. As a consequence of the lack of legal channels for migrating and seeking asylum, and the lack of possibilities to transit regularly along the routes, almost everyone who travels the route uses migrant smuggling services, at least at some point. Many of the determining factors of resilience or vulnerability depend upon people’s experiences of migrant smuggling.

Although the research topic of The Strength to Carry On is human trafficking, the practice of migrant smuggling is ever-present in the experiences of people on the move. During the 1940s in Europe, those who provided services to people wishing to seek safety in another country by travelling irregularly were referred to as “Fluchthelfer” in the German language – someone who helped them to escape. In a more resilient scenario, a person engages the services of migrant smugglers, pays them, and, with their assistance, manages to safely reach a country of destination or transit.

In a second scenario, the interaction with migrant smugglers is the same, but the desperate need to obtain money in order to pay the smugglers makes people vulnerable to being abused, exploited or trafficked by another, unconnected, actor, such as a farm-owner, a marriage ‘broker’ or a pimp. The third scenario is when those contracted to provide migrant smuggling services use the opportunity to abuse or exploit the person who wishes to travel.

People on the move do not want to engage with migrant smugglers, what they want is to travel regularly and safely in order to apply for asylum. So expanding opportunities for regular travel, such as refugee resettlement, private sponsorship, humanitarian visas, regular labour migration and family reunification, as well as regularised transit, will break the business model of migrant smugglers and make people more resilient to trafficking.

In designing policies and practices to prevent trafficking and other abuses, identifying and building upon such factors of resilience is a very promising area of research and action, which has unfortunately been relatively absent from the anti-trafficking field thus far.

Dr. Claire Healy is ICMPD Trafficking Research Coordinator.


Additional information:

The research study The Strength to Carry On, is the outcome of the project Study on Trafficking Resilience and Vulnerability en route to Europe (STRIVE), funded by the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP). The research was carried out throughout 2018 by an ICMPD team based in Skopje and Vienna and by seven Country Researchers in the seven countries under study along the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkan and Central Mediterranean migration routes: Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Italy.

The full study can be downloaded here: www.icmpd.org/fileadmin/ICMPD-Website/2019/New_Strive_Study_Final.pdf