Expert Voice

Latest research findings on resilience and vulnerability to human trafficking on migration routes to Europe

29 October 2018

This article presents some of the findings from our in-depth, multi-country research project “Study on Trafficking Resilience and Vulnerability en route to Europe (STRIVE)”. The analysis of the research findings is still ongoing, however first results are ready to be shared. 

By Claire Healy

The findings of this research are currently being analysed, and the full study will be published early next year. The research looks at the incidence of trafficking in this context, and examines the factors that make people taking the journey more resilient to trafficking and related abuses, as well as the factors that determine their vulnerability. The project is funded by the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP).

The research so far indicates that: 

  • Exploitation often takes place during the journey, but people in transit wish to continue on to the next country as soon as possible, which presents challenge for protecting trafficked people and prosecuting traffickers;
  • many teenage boys and young men are exploited, but they are rarely considered “vulnerable”;
  • human trafficking and migrant smuggling are very different crimes, but using smuggling services makes people vulnerable to exploitation.

Research Overview

The countries under study for the STRIVE research project are situated along the main Balkan migration routes: Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Germany, the main destination country, and Italy, the first EU country of arrival along the Central Mediterranean route. So far, we have interviewed over 200 key informants and over 90 people who have traveled the routes. 

A total of around 1.1 million people have traveled along the “Balkan route” since 2015, in order to enter an EU country and apply for asylum. The route leads from Turkey, where a number of routes from countries of origin in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq), West and South Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan) and Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia) converge. From Turkey, people either travel by boat from the Western coast to the nearby Greek North Aegean islands, or cross the Evros River into Greece or Bulgaria. 

For the approximately 500,000 people who arrived in Italy along the Central Mediterranean route since 2015, various migration routes through West Africa (from Nigeria, Senegal, The Gambia and Ghana), Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia) and more recently from North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) and South Asia (Bangladesh, Pakistan) converge on Libya as the main transit country. People then travel by boat to arrive at Italian ports on the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, and on the mainland.

Exploitation often takes place during the journey, but people in transit wish to carry on to the next country as soon as possible

Official statistics show very few cases of human trafficking among people using the Balkan route. In Macedonia, for example, the number of officially identified cases among the large numbers of people who transited through the country since 2015 is in single figures. Similarly, in Bulgaria, the vast majority of identified trafficked people are Bulgarian citizens. Also in Germany, 85% of identified trafficked people are European. Among the non-EU victims identified, the majority are Nigerian women. On the other hand, among people using the Central Mediterranean route, 65% of the people being protected as trafficking victims in Italy are Nigerian, while the others are from Morocco, Senegal, Pakistan and Ghana, as well as Romania and Albania. Most trafficked people officially identified in all these countries are adult women. 

Exploitation takes place in countries of origin prior to departure, in transit countries outside Europe, such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Libya, and in countries of transit or destination in Europe. One of the most important reasons for the low numbers of identified cases of trafficking along the migration routes is the fact that people are in transit. They may see possible identification as a victim of trafficking as reducing their chances of travelling onwards, making it unappealing for them to seek help and protection. And the authorities and NGOs were mainly focused on registration and the provision of basic services to people in transit and did not focus on their personal stories, or on possible indications of trafficking and exploitation. 

Many teenage boys and young men are exploited, but they are rarely considered “vulnerable”

NGOs and authorities tended to focus on more “visible” vulnerabilities, such as children travelling alone, pregnant women, people in need of medical assistance and elderly people. This focus on “visible” vulnerabilities can also be detrimental to the protection of boys and men who are victims of exploitation and abuse. Single adult men in some cases are the most vulnerable group precisely because they are considered the least vulnerable. This is an unintended consequence of the application of provisions to protect and give priority to “vulnerable groups”. This does not mean that women and girls are not affected by specific vulnerabilities, and indeed there are indications of trafficking of women and girls along the route, but understanding the gender composition of the groups of people who have arrived in the EU using these routes is crucial. 

There are many cases of trafficking and related abuses of men and boys simply because they form the majority of people travelling along the route. Around two-thirds of all those who arrived along the routes since 2015 are adult men, mainly aged 18-30 years old. Around nine out of ten unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in the EU since 2015 are boys, mostly aged 15-17 years old (Eurostat). This means that often, during the journey, arrival and asylum application process, these boys “age out” of protection systems, turning 18 and being considered as adult men in terms of status and service provision, no longer covered by child protection policies and services.

In general, many policy-makers, journalists and researchers tend to describe trafficking as a dichotomy between good and evil, and between male and female: the evil male trafficker exploiting the innocent and passive female victim by forcing her into prostitution. The implications of this “traditional” understanding of human trafficking are that men and boys are less likely to be identified as victims and, even if they are identified, less likely to be provided with the protection that they are entitled to. 

Yet many of the indications of trafficking that we have found in this research victimise teenage boys and young men, in labour exploitation, sexual exploitation and forced criminal activities. They are vulnerable due to: experience of abuse and exploitation before they left their country of origin or previous residence; being physically abused, subjected to police brutality or robbed along the way; and the pressure of debts and family expectations.

Human trafficking and migrant smuggling are very different crimes, but using smuggling services makes people vulnerable to exploitation

Boys and men, but also girls and women, may be exploited and trafficked in the context of migrant smuggling in various ways, depending on the circumstances of their trip. Many people who wish to apply for asylum in an EU country have very low chances of being granted a visa for regular travel – which would make them far more resilient to abuse and exploitation. So they have to travel irregularly across multiple countries and make a dangerous sea crossing, using the services of migrant smugglers.

The EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016 in particular led to increasing restrictions on movement, leaving some people “stranded” along the route, unable to continue on to their intended destinations and highly dependent on the services of migrant smugglers. This exposed them to risks of exploitation, which are exacerbated by lack of regular status and lack of access to the regular labour market. So preventing human trafficking requires providing access to regular travel - through increased access to refugee resettlement programmes, humanitarian visas, and work, study or family reunification visas for EU countries, and swift and fair asylum procedures within the EU.

Dependence on smugglers also has significant financial implications for people taking the journey. Many people go into debt for this reason, which substantially increases their vulnerability to exploitation. This may contribute to them being stranded and not able to move on, not being able to meet their basic needs, and working under exploitative conditions along the way. 

It should be noted, however, that smuggling services are provided along a continuum of smuggling, from service provision with no abuses or deception at one end, to abuse, exploitation and trafficking, at the other. People’s experiences of migrant smuggling along the route are located at various points along this continuum. Some people were more resilient to abuse and exploitation because their interaction with smugglers was minimal, when transit was swift and regular during 2015, and others are more resilient because they can afford to pay a higher price to smugglers, so they are not exploited or abused.

We are now moving into the final phase of the research, where we consolidate and analyse all of this information. We are analysing the research findings to understand what makes people more resilient in this context and what prevents them from being abused or exploited, both in terms of policies and personal factors.

What is already clear at this stage is that:

  • trafficked people must have access to protection as soon as possible, and regardless of where the exploitation took place; 
  • identification and protection services need to also be in place for men and boys and their potential vulnerability to exploitation should be recognised; and
  • if we are serious about combating migrant smuggling and preventing related human trafficking, then legal migration channels must be significantly expanded. Access to refugee resettlement, humanitarian visas and regular migration programmes to the EU is a decisive source of resilience to trafficking and abuse.


Claire Healy is Research Coordinator at the Anti Trafficking Programme in ICMPD.