Expert Voice

Needing to use migrant smuggling services as a position of vulnerability: Trafficking on migration routes to Europe

30 June 2019

To mark World Day against Trafficking in Persons 2019, this ICMPD Expert Voice article puts the spotlight on a neglected and under-reported form of human trafficking in the context of mixed migration: trafficking for forced migrant smuggling. 

Faizan’s Story

Faizan* was 14 years old when he arrived in Serbia in 2016 from Pakistan. His family had given him enough money to pay for migrant smugglers to take him out of Pakistan, across Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. In Turkey, he and some other Pakistani boys worked in a textiles workshop near Istanbul for a few months to pay for the sea crossing from the Turkish port town of Izmir to the nearby Greek island of Samos in the North Aegean Sea. During his subsequent overland trip through mainland Greece and North Macedonia, he ran out of money again. The two young Pakistani men whom he had partially paid to take him from Greece to Germany told him that he could pay the rest of the fees by ‘guiding’ people along the route. He knew the overland journey through Greece and North Macedonia, as he had taken it himself.

And so in summer 2016, Faizan started accompanying groups of Pakistani and Afghani people along the route from Greece to Serbia, as they attempted the ‘game’ of trying to irregularly cross borders. But his ‘debt’ to the smugglers kept increasing. By the time social workers encountered him in Belgrade, Serbia, Faizan was 16 years old. He had never made it to Germany and he had been working in the ‘game’ for almost two years. He said that the ‘big boss’ of the migrant smugglers was based in Belgium. According to the social workers in Serbia, who we interviewed for our research, “he was forced to work for him and pay money, as he said, pay his way out […]. When he wanted to get out of it, he feared he would be killed, and he had to pay quite a huge amount of money.” 

Trafficking for Forced Migrant Smuggling

Apart from sex and labour trafficking, the main form of trafficking affecting men and boys who travel on migration routes to the EU is forced criminal activities, particularly migrant smuggling. Unaccompanied Afghani and Pakistani boys and young men in Greece, Serbia and Hungary are recruited by migrant smugglers to provide different types of migrant smuggling services. Men and boys are also forced by migrant smugglers to navigate boats from Turkey to Greece, and from Libya to Italy.

An interviewee for our research in Greece spoke of: “Afghani and Pakistani boys who wanted to cross the Evros region [land border between Turkey and Greece], and the smugglers told them it would cost €1,000. As soon as they crossed, they were informed that the price had gone up to €1,500, which they could not pay. Therefore, they were forced to smuggle people in order to repay their debt, and sometimes they were arrested as smugglers, while in reality they were the victims.” 

People are also forced by migrant smugglers to navigate boats across the Central Mediterranean Sea. A 30-year-old Malian man interviewed in Germany described his experience of crossing to Italy from Libya: “[The smugglers] chose a Senegalese man to navigate the boat. He was not willing, but they forced him.”

The Paradox of ‘Vulnerable Groups’

Boys and men are most affected by this form of trafficking for forced criminality. Yet many state and NGO service providers along the route presume that teenage boys, and particularly young men, are more resilient to abuse and trafficking. Teenage boys and young men are a vulnerable group in this specific context precisely because they are considered the least vulnerable.

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. It is the perceived vulnerability of a young child or a woman travelling alone that means that they can access better protection services and have increased resilience in transit and destination countries in Europe.

Abuse of a Position of Vulnerability Caused by the Need for Migrant Smuggling

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 routes uses migrant smuggling services, at least at some point. The ‘closing’ of the borders in March 2016 resulted in an increased demand for migrant smuggling services, due to the increased difficulty of transiting to intended destination countries. 

Vulnerabilities to trafficking arise either directly through interaction with smugglers, or as a result of the need to pay for their services. Smuggling services may be provided without involving abuses or exploitation, but people on the move run out of money or go into debt in order to pay for the services, making them vulnerable to labour exploitation in particular. 

Regardless of whether or not traffickers also provide migrant smuggling services, and of whether they exploit people on the move in forced migrant smuggling or in other forms of exploitation, the main modus operandi of traffickers is to abuse the position of vulnerability of people travelling along migration routes. This position of vulnerability arises from their need to use, and to pay for, migrant smuggling services, in a context of lack of alternatives for regular travel.

Therefore, on the occasion of this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, we call attention to some of the key recommendations of The Strength to Carry On:

  • Significantly expand the range of alternatives for regular travel for refugees and other migrants, and their availability, to avoid people making irregular and dangerous journeys, and using migrant smugglers. This includes possibilities for regular migration (including labour migration and family reunification) and programmes for regular travel for refugees, including resettlement, community sponsorship and humanitarian visas. 
  • For people who cannot access legal opportunities for travel, allow legal transit through countries along migration routes. People who can transit legally and swiftly through transit countries are more resilient to trafficking and other abuses, and if transit regularised and registered, they are more likely to trust the authorities. 
  • Combat forced migrant smuggling as a form of human trafficking, by undertaking any necessary legal amendments and ensuring that anti-trafficking stakeholders are informed, trained and properly resourced to identify cases where people who seem like perpetrators of migrant smuggling are actually victims of trafficking for forced migrant smuggling, to protect the victims, and to prosecute the actual perpetrators. 
  • Ensure that people who have been trafficked for the purposes of forced migrant smuggling and other forced criminal activities are not punished for these crimes, by making any legal and administrative amendments necessary, ensuring effective implementation of non-punishment provisions and training all relevant stakeholders. The actual perpetrators should be brought to justice.
  • Put in place specific protection measures for girls, boys, women and men, recognising the special needs of women and children, and recognising that men and boys are also vulnerable to abuses, particularly unaccompanied and separated boys. When men and boys are not considered ‘vulnerable groups’, they may be denied access to protection and essential services, rendering them more vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses.


The short Briefing Paper setting out the research findings and the recommendations of the study "The Strength to Carry On", as well as the Policy Brief, are now available in English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, Greek, Italian, Macedonian and Serbian.

*The boy’s name and other details have been changed to protect his anonymity.