Expert Voice

Journeys of vulnerability from Syria to Europe

07 October 2015

Syrian Arab Republic

Addressing the vulnerability of people affected by the Syrian crisis is necessary to prevent their exploitation at the hands of human traffickers. In Syria and the surrounding countries, this means providing access to basic needs and services in the short term. It means providing more resettlement and other safe travel options to safe countries outside the region to address the current reliance on migrant smugglers.

By Elisa Trossero, Claire Healy and William Huddleston

In the medium-to-long term, it means facilitating access to the regular labour market for refugees to prevent exploitation in the irregular economy, and enhancing the role of labour inspectorates in Europe. It means a coordinated response across all stages of the journey those displaced by conflict are embarking on. 

"Large-scale migratory movements and related situations of vulnerability can create the conditions for human traffickers to profit from the exploitation of the people affected." This is a quote from ICMPD’s statement on 18 October 2014 for EU Anti-Trafficking Day when our research study on the impact of the Syrian crisis on trafficking in human beings was launched. Almost one year on, and with increasing numbers of migrants and refugees arriving as far as Europe, this warning remains as urgent as ever. 

Situations of vulnerability have been a daily reality for children, women and men across Syria and its neighbouring countries since the beginning for the war in 2011, and continue to be so. In Syria itself there are now 7.6 million internally displaced people. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq host over 4 million refugees while the European Union has received 400,000 Syrians in the space of four years, many of them in the last months. From this group, over 2 million Syrian children have crossed the borders and now live as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, as well as Egypt. In parallel, refugees continue to flee long-running conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hidden behind these vast statistics are the individual human beings - their desperate search for a new home, job or school, after abandoning Syria; sleepless nights reliving their flight from violence, and mourning the friends and family members they have lost; concern for their children’s safety; unaccompanied children on the move, despair at being unable to legally access employment in the country they now live in. 

Addressing new forms of trafficking means addressing situations of vulnerability 

In Syria, the surrounding countries, and on European shores, the classic organised crime framework for understanding trafficking does not fit neatly onto the actual situation of people trafficked or vulnerable to trafficking in this context. Very severe forms of exploitation and trafficking are taking place, committed by highly organised criminal networks, but the most common type of trafficking is at a lower level, involving fathers, mothers, husbands, extended family, acquaintances and neighbours. Men may work in the informal market, and face poor to degrading and exploitative working conditions. Women may see no other option to take care of themselves and their families than to become involved in prostitution. Sending boys and girls to beg and sell things on the streets may seem like the only way to secure a livelihood. Urgent action must be taken to address this kind of trafficking by providing early identification, and access to basic services and needs for displaced people from Syria.

Smuggling can provide a basis for trafficking

For those seeking safety, the lack of legal and safe migration routes to other countries means reliance on the services of migrant smugglers, as well as undertaking often deadly journeys across the Mediterranean or through South Eastern Europe to reach Western Europe. This causes further vulnerability to trafficking. Migrant smugglers operate as service providers, to facilitate the unauthorised crossing of national borders. They must not be confused with traffickers, as has been the case in many media reports. Human traffickers may use the same routes or networks as smugglers, but they do so as part of a process that results in the exploitation of the victim. The divergence between the two occurs when traffickers take advantage of a position of vulnerability of those seeking safe passage across a border, or safe movement inside borders, in order to exploit them, maintaining control by physical or psychological coercion, deception or debt bondage. Syrians in transit may become more vulnerable the further they travel, as their economic resources, social networks and physical wellbeing are gradually exhausted the further they move from their first point of departure. The situation in Syria is chronic, and people will continue to flee the conflict. Providing legal channels of resettlement from the region to safe countries elsewhere will have a big impact in disrupting smuggling operations, and reducing Syrian refugees’ vulnerability to trafficking. 

Even for those Syrians who have made it to countries outside the region, in Europe or elsewhere, vulnerability to exploitation remains an issue as they adjust to life in their new homes. Access to employment and means to support themselves and their families is one of the first challenges they will face. A number will find jobs, although few at a level that matches their skills and previous experience. For some, even if they have the right to seek legal employment, working in informal and undeclared jobs will be the only option. The risks of degrading working conditions, severe forms of labour exploitation and trafficking are far higher in the unregulated and unmonitored areas of the labour market.

Measures to prevent exploitation in the future

The European Commission recently highlighted the option of granting asylum applicants the right to work and earn their own income whilst their applications are being processed. Allowing the right to work, as well as focusing on policies of support, integration and inclusion, will reduce the likelihood of refugees working in the informal sector and ending up in exploitative work situations. Enhancing the capacity of European labour inspectors to monitor sectors of the labour market vulnerable to exploitation is a necessary measure in the immediate future. 

It must be stressed that Syrians and other displaced people are not inherently vulnerable. The situations of vulnerability they face are a result of the security and policy environments they find themselves subject to, whether they remain internally displaced in Syria, living in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon; whether they are attempting to cross the Mediterranean, the border crossings of South Eastern Europe, or have recently arrived in Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, or Sweden, among others.

The impact of the current large-scale movements through South Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean on the extent of trafficking in the region is unknown, as are the long-term prospects for integration and risks of exploitation facing recently settled refugees in European states.

These trends have been repeatedly in evidence during the course of ICMPD’s anti-trafficking work over the past year; from the preliminary findings of our research project on the impact of the Syrian crisis on trafficking in the region; in meetings with the National Anti-Trafficking Coordinators of South Eastern Europe; during consultations with labour inspectors and anti-trafficking officials from EU Member States. 

How vulnerability fuels trafficking in human beings in Syria and the neighbouring countries will be presented in ICMPD’s research assessment, to be launched in December 2015. ICMPD has already highlighted the risks of exploitation in unregulated sectors of the European labour market to labour inspectorates, and will continue to support them. Finally, in November, the County Administrative Board of Stockholm, the institution acting as the Swedish National Coordinator against Trafficking in Human Beings in cooperation with ICMPD will convene a meeting of National Anti-Trafficking Coordinators of South Eastern Europe, in Sweden. This meeting will consider, inter alia, the anti-trafficking response to the current situation of mass movement through the region and how transnational cooperation and referral of trafficking cases can be further improved.  Furthermore, findings from the Demand in Anti-Trafficking project will continue to be published throughout late 2015 and 2016, and will provide policy makers with an understanding of the structural forces in modern economies and societies that contribute to trafficking.


Elisa Trossero is Programme Manager for ICMPD’s Anti-Trafficking programme. 
Dr. Claire Healy is a Research Officer and William Huddleston is Junior Project Officer in ICMPD’s Anti-Trafficking programme. 

The views expressed here are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of ICMPD.