Tackling human trafficking along the Balkan Route. How to improve identification and assistance of trafficked migrants and refugees

In recent years, the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe has significantly increased. This has primarily involved the dramatic influx of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees/migrants who have moved through the Balkans (often referred to as “the Balkan route”) in their attempt to reach and resettle in the European Union (EU).

Map by NEXUS Institute: The Balkan Route

Along the way and at various stages of their journeys and flights, many of these migrants and refugees are exposed to different risks, vulnerabilities and exploitation, including, in some cases, human trafficking. And yet, to date, there has been limited empirical evidence of when, why and how vulnerability to human trafficking arises in mass movements of migrants and refugees. Not least, new patterns of vulnerabilities and exploitation challenge established procedures for identification of and assistance to victims. More knowledge and evidence of these risk and vulnerability factors is essential to better inform improved policy and programmatic responses in the fields of migration, asylum and human trafficking.

Recently NEXUS Institute and Fafo, in partnership with Serbian NGOs Atina and Centre for Youth Integration, released Vulnerability and exploitation along the Balkan route: Identifying victims of human trafficking in Serbia. This study presents the experiences of trafficked migrants and trafficked refugees who have moved to and through Serbia over the past two years. The paper also explores the different ways and situations in which refugees and migrants have become vulnerable and been subjected to human trafficking while en route or in transit in Serbia, as well as challenges and barriers to their formal identification and assistance as victims of human trafficking.

Photograph by Peter Biro/ECHO: Syrian refugees in flight from their conflict affected country. All rights reserved.

The following recommendations offer some overarching guidance for how stakeholders may begin to work more effectively on these issues and to better identify and assist trafficked migrants/refugees. 

Better understand human trafficking in crisis. We need to better understand the nature and scope of human trafficking in the context of mass movements of migrants and refugees including who is at risk (men, women and children) and what puts them at risk. This also includes looking into how trafficking may occur differently at different stages of one’s journey or flight and also upon arrival at one’s destination.


Inform and educate migrants and refugees about human trafficking. Migrants and refugees need to be informed about the risk of human trafficking during flight, in refugee settings and also once they arrive at their final destination. They need to know what risks exist and how to evade them. They also need information about what to do in case they are in a situation of risk and whom they can contact for help.


Integrate human trafficking into the humanitarian response. Many migrants and refugees may, at different stages of their lives and journey/flight, occupy multiple categories of vulnerability as “migrants”, “refugees” and “trafficking victims”. Regardless of one’s identity(ies), trafficked migrants and trafficked refugees require assistance and protection. Anti-trafficking efforts should be mainstreamed into the humanitarian response to ensure inclusive protections and assistance.


Develop tools and guidance to identify human trafficking among migrants and refugees. Specials tools and guidance are needed to identify trafficked migrants/refugees in the context of mass movements. Signals and indicators of human trafficking will need to be adapted to how trafficking manifests and can be recognized in a situation of mass movement of migrants/refugees. Different forms of human trafficking are also likely to manifest themselves and frontline responders should be equipped to recognize and respond to these emergent and evolving forms of human trafficking.


Build the capacity of humanitarian responders to identify and assist victims of trafficking. Humanitarian actors (from national governments, civil society as well as the international community) lack knowledge of and skills to identify and assist trafficked migrants/refugees. Frontline responders in crises should be trained in how to identify presumed trafficking victims among migrants and refugees and how to refer them for formal identification and protection. Humanitarian frontline responders should also be trained in tools that are tailored to identification of trafficking victims in the context of the mass movement of migrants and refugees.


Ensure sufficient capacity and procedures for formal identification of trafficking victims. With a dramatic increase in the numbers of individuals with a known heightened risk to being or having been trafficked, the existing infrastructure for formal identification (and thus the individuals’ access to rights and services) may be insufficient. When this population is also fast moving, the response and processing time should be continuously assessed and improved as necessary.

Photograph by Peter Biro/ECHO: Syrian refugees in flight from their conflict affected country. All rights reserved.

Provide assistance to trafficked persons identified among migrants/refugees. Trafficking victims (men, women, boys and girls) may need a raft of services to assist them in their recovery. Assistance that addresses these recovery needs should be available to all trafficking victims. At a minimum, this assistance should include safe housing, material and psychological support, access to medical services, translation and interpretation services where appropriate, counseling on legal rights and their eligibility for services.


Coordinate protection efforts across different fields of work and “statuses”. It is important that victims do not suffer as a result of a “status-based approach” whereby they must fit their needs and access their rights according to only one status – as a migrant, refugee or victim of trafficking. Protection efforts should be integrated in such a way that trafficked migrants/refugees can leverage assistance and protection to meet their individual needs. Organizations and institutions must increasingly coordinate their efforts such that they complement one another in offering protection.


Identify ways to prevent TIP among migrants/refugees. Both the journey/flight and the refugee setting (whether in formal or informal camps or as urban refugees) may expose trafficking victims to human trafficking and measures must be put in place to prevent this additional exploitation.



* All references to Kosovo, whether the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.