This module is a resource for lecturers

Vulnerable groups

It should be stressed - as highlighted in Module 5 - that references to "vulnerable groups" does not imply that such individuals are intrinsically vulnerable. Rather, this categorization intends to operate as an alert to the fact that these groups often face circumstances that make them vulnerable. There are several factors that may enhance the vulnerability of individuals. Such conditions may refer, inter alia,to the reasons why smuggled migrants left their countries of origin, circumstances encountered by migrants during transit and specific aspects of a person's identity. This Module notes two vulnerable groups, women and children, though there are others, including the elderly. Some vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities, accrue rights under specialized international instruments.


Women are recognized as a group at special risk of trafficking in persons, abuse and exploitation (see Modules 1 and 13). Their particular needs in terms of protection and assistance are recognized in article 16(4) of the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants.

States should consider making available women's protection and information points at reception centers for irregular migrants to provide female migrants who have experienced trauma (including sexual and gender-based violence) access to specialized medical and psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health services and information, safe spaces including mother/baby-friendly sites and women's shelters. It is also important to carefully assess protective measures that may restrict women's mobility and unintentionally undermine their rights (for example, by restricting the mobility of low-skilled women younger than 30 for overseas employment).

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is an important source of protection for migrant women. While it does not specifically refer to the rights of women, it obligates States to adopt measures intended to protect "women". The Convention covers, for instance, the "private" circumstances of undocumented domestic workers employed in private homes, with limited freedom of movement and that are prone to gender-based abuse.

Box 28

Good Practice

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities in the town of Gevgelija are made of semi-permanent construction sanitation blocks with wheelchair accessible sex-segregated toilets, sex-segregated showers and hand washing facilities. The facilities are lit at night. There is a separate mother/baby changing station in the sanitation block which can be accessed by requesting a key from the UNICEF Child Friendly Space nearby. All toilet facilities appear to be clean and well kept.

OHCHR and Global Migration Group, Principles and Guidelines, supported by practical guidance, on the Human Rights Protection of Migrants in Vulnerable Situations (March 2018)


Under article 16(4) of the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, States must also take into account the special needs of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the primary legal instrument regarding the rights of children. Article 2(1) of the CRC requires States to take measures to ensure that children are protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment based on the status of the child, their parents, legal guardians or family members. The provision of services, such as healthcare and education, is not dependent on whether the child has been smuggled, is an irregular migrant, or is regularly in the country. Children should not be detained and decisions regarding them should take into account their best interests as a primary consideration.

The special situation of smuggled (and trafficked) children is further examined in Module 12.

Next: Positive and negative obligations of the State
Back to top