Victim support

Indicators of vulnerability to human trafficking

Multiple factors create vulnerabilities to trafficking of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers after they have entered the EU. Vulnerability factors are not human characteristics, but are resulting from society’s inability to deal with them properly. Risk factors and/or vulnerabilities may be relevant to interviewing/hearing procedures, protection for the duration of victims’ involvement in criminal proceedings, status determination, protection against expulsion and deportation, finding a durable solution, securing higher compensation etc.

I. Personal characteristics

Age is one of the most important determinants of vulnerability, with younger females being at greater risk of trafficking (Randle, 2020), especially for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Age is also a risk factor and a source of vulnerability for male victimisation: there are more and more cases of sexual exploitation of young men and boys in the context of migration. Unaccompanied minors, regardless of their gender, are among the groups facing the highest risk (UNHCR, 2020).

Gender is another major and important risk factor of trafficking of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as women and girls are disproportionately affected by trafficking and exploitation. Gender determines the relationship between the other risk factors, including age, economic status, family status, etc. all at the same time (Randle, 2020). Gender identity and sexual orientation are factors that are yet to be examined which increases vulnerability. People from the LGBTQIA+ community among migrants, refugees and asylum seekers face a higher risk as they are often marginalised from their families and communities (UNODC, 2021).

Health, including mental health, conditions also predispose vulnerability to trafficking. These may include chronic or acute states or illnesses related to the use of life-saving medications (such as HIV, diabetes, asthma, etc.) that could be scarce during migration and that could force people in need to go through various forms of exploitation in order to procure the medications. Migrants are more likely to face unmet medical needs related to various factors such as: lack of access or limited health, lack of knowledge on how to access medical services, financial resources, language barriers and lack of adaptation of national systems to their specific needs (EC, 2020b). Different forms of physical disability could be related to a risk of trafficking for the purposes of begging. The psychological trauma could lead to emotional disbalance and affect their attitude in a way that puts migrants at risk of abuse and trafficking. Different mental health problems could prevent adequate reality testing, affect their behaviour and create a risk of trafficking. Psychological problems are often used by traffickers. These may be hypomanic states whose symptoms can include sexualised behaviour or lack of personal boundaries. Addictions to substances and mental deficits also constitute risk factors. The health factor creates additional vulnerability to women in relation to their reproductive health and especially in case they are pregnant or have given birth recently.

Nationality and ethnicity are discussed in some studies as risk factors in the country of destination or transit in the EU. The EU gives priority to nationalities that are considered to be at higher risk and most likely to qualify for protection as refugees (Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani) (Brunovskis & Surtees, 2017). Refugees, unlike immigrants, are entitled to resettlement in safe places and to not being returned to places where there are threats to their life and health (the principle of non-refoulement). This is why when it comes to immigrants the risk of becoming victims of trafficking or abuse may be underestimated if they are to be returned to their countries of origin or taken outside the EU boundaries. Migrants have to to find shelter and jobs or to make money faster in order to continue their journey. This puts them in a more vulnerable situation to accept propositions that might involve exploitation. Due to the pressing desire to reach their destination, immigrants may use the services of smugglers that can easily turn into trafficking.

Economic status, as for some migrants, poverty is a reason to look for better income in Europe. Others invested all their savings into using the services of smugglers. The lack of income and the opportunity to work once they enter the EU is a serious risk factor. People who received international protection or have a long-term residence permit have the right to work, but there are a number of obstacles that take time to be overcome, including the language barrier, lack of valid documentation that proves the level of education or professional experience, lack of knowledge of the labour market in the country of stay. Often, migrants and especially women are forced to work in low paid jobs that are beneath their level of qualification or are engaged in the grey sector where they work without a contract, insurance, and respect to their labour rights. The risk of exploitation in such a work situation is very high. Other directly related factors are low levels of education, professional qualification, and work experience that make integration difficult and are a warning sign for vulnerability and victimisation. A number of studies show that the poverty factor affects more women due to the traditionally lower levels of education and lack of professional experience (Randle, 2020).

Family status is a factor that affects mainly women and comes from the traditional understandings of their role in the family as being economically dependent and not having enough freedom to make life choices. Women are responsible for taking care of the children. In most cases, they are systematically subjected to attitudes that can be described as GBV, including domestic violence. The isolation and dependency, the lack of education and professional experience put barriers to integration. Women remain closed and isolated without access to resources and thus can become VoTs (Spampinati, C. et al., 2020). Single refugee women face high risk of trafficking with the purpose of sexual exploitation, due to their economic status, lack of professional skills, and family support (Randle, 2020).

Religious beliefs and practices that assign unequality between men and women often act as push factors for women to migrate. They are escaping forced marriages, genital mutilation, honor-based crimes, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Fears of persecution may increase vulnerability to trafficking.

ІІ. Problems of integration in Europe

Despite the fact that most, if not all, EU Member States have systems that support migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, there are a number of serious obstacles to their integration that makes them vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse and human trafficking within the EU, including:

Lack of local language knowledge which prevents them from communicating with the local community and institutions that can help them. They cannot receive clear information on their rights and possibilities as well as accessible services, or have trouble explaining their problems. Women who are isolated at home as a result of family traditions and/or looking after their children find it difficult to learn the language well enough in order to integrate in the society.

Social isolation is one of the vulnerabilities traffickers use for recruiting victims (Spampinati, C. et al., 2020). Socio-cultural barriers that migrants have to overcome during the integration process and the adjustment to a new culture might cau se multiple stresses (Wang, Z.; de Graaf, T.; Nijkamp, P., 2018). Integration is a long process and includes the understanding, acceptance and abidance by different and sometimes contradicting to their own social norms and values, religion beliefs, family structures, norms for societal interaction (Wang, Z.; de Graaf, T.; Nijkamp, P., 2018). Cultural barriers prevent women from finding employment and becoming equal and autonomous. Due to lack of financial resources, they cannot be involved in various activities of the community that facilitate integration – sports clubs, cultural activities and others. Depending on the level of adaptation, migrants might find themselves in a situation of integration, assimilation, separation, or marginalisation (Constant, A.; Gataullina, L.; Zimmermann, F., 2006). Social separation and marginalisation can easily be used by traffickers who often belong to the same migrant groups and exercise power and control in these closed communities.

Discrimination, prejudices, stigma and other negative attitudes towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers constitute a significant barrier on their way to integration. European societies may discriminate against them when accessing the labour market on the basis of ethnicity, culture, religion, requirements for perfect knowledge of the local language and gender. Employers might prefer to hire local workers. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers often do not report the crimes they had suffered due to fears of prejudice and discrimination that would prevent the authorities from taking them seriously. This is ans exsample how prejudice and discrimination can limit the impact of laws, services for those who experience discrimination (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018).

Lack of access to legal aid puts migrants, refugees and asylum seekers’ life and health at risk. They need a legal representative when it comes to procedures related to their status, which can be long-lasting, and decisions might have to be appealed. They may also need a legal counsellor in other civil, administrative, or criminal procedures – marital issues, labour issues, starting their own business, compensation, access to social protection and benefits, bringing claims, pressing charges, or just navigating in legal, social, labour systems and procedures. For many women legal aid is the only way to overcome domestic violence they have endured for years.

IІІ. Procedures, practices, and legislation

The managing of the migration process from the State can turn into a risk factor in case priority is given to problems of security and prevention of illegal migration and not to the prevention of THB. Inadequate identification of victims, criminalisation of some VoTs, lack of adequate support for people in transit are direct results of policies that are not sensitive towards the vulnerability to THB.

Fast procedures that aim at speeding up the asylum applications and the return procedures make it impossible to examine risk factors (Forin, R. et al., 2018).

Restrictive migration policies prevent first line experts from identifying VoTs (Forin, R. et al., 2018) and migrants look for risky ways to cross borders which puts them at risk of trafficking (La Strada International, 2020).

The Dublin III regulation plays a major role in the access of VoTs to residence permits provided via asylum procedures. The chances of people looking for asylum depends upon the Member State that evaluates the request. Not all States have proactive mechanisms for identification of victims of trafficking or people at risk of trafficking according to the Dublin procedure, and the sovereignty clause (17.1.) is rarely used to prevent trafficking and re-trafficking. Unidentified victims of trafficking are referred back to another EU country, where they are at high risk of being re-trafficked.

Individual interviews with asylum seekers are not conducted in a suitable environment that suggests sharing or self-identification of the victims. The procedures and questionnaires are not aimed at identifying the risk of trafficking.

Lack of sufficient information that authorities can provide to migrants regarding their rights, places for support, existing social services, etc. Or the information is is presented in an unclear and confusing or too broad manner. Lack of various channels for sharing information in understandable ways accessible also for illiterate people – counseling services, websites, videos, images, leaflets etc. (VV.AA, 2021).

Visa status is a factor that concerns undocumented migrants who have limited to no access to support services. They can only work illegally, do not have social or medical rights. They have to pay bribes to corrupted employees or accept exploitative practices in order to avoid detention or deportation (IOM, 2019).

There are no procedures that support undocumented migrants to report crimes related to THB without fear of being detained or deported.

Migrants who are victims of crimes want to avoid being identified because they do not want to take part in criminal proceedings that they do not fully understand and over which they have no control. They fear contact with authorities, or feel shame to report crimes, especially if sexual violence was involved. Often they believe they have no benefit in pressing charges and are not aware of their rights as victims of a crime, including THB.

The asylum and refugee system and the anti-trafficking system are not synchronised and operate separately with no connection between each other. Migrants have difficulties to claim protection from both systems and have to choose which one serves better their personal plans.

The terms trafficking in human beings and smuggling are often mistaken and this leads to gaps in the identification of human trafficking risk factors. In the first case migrants are in the position of victims, while in the second they are active participants (IOM, 2019).

The necessity to follow the law to the letter as well as the exact definition of identification of VoTs for the purposes of the criminal proceedings prevents a number of people who are at risk of trafficking from receiving support.

Lack of clear criteria on security and integration when leaving the RICs forces a lot of people to take care of themselves without any actual support which makes them vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.