This module is a resource for lecturers


Smuggled migrants are often exposed to heightened risks and may be in vulnerable situations. The fact of being far from home, often in a country where they have never been and do not know anyone, is a substantial cause of vulnerability for irregular migrants. Many will not know the language, cultural habits and logistics in transit and destination countries. Their dependence on smugglers, coupled with the fear of contacting authorities, significantly increases their risk of abuse. Further, flows of smuggled migrants often include particularly vulnerable groups, such as women, unaccompanied minors and people with disabilities. Acknowledging this is critical to effectively and holistically understanding and addressing migrant smuggling and its consequences, including by providing tailored assistance, support and protection to smuggled migrants.

Table 2: Situational vulnerability


Migrant women are vulnerable to human rights violations during smuggling ventures and after arrival. They are at risk of being forced into trafficking rings (labour or sexual exploitation, mostly). There are reports of migrants selling their children for adoption in lieu of payment of smuggling fees (UNODC, 2010, p. 43).


Children, particulary unaccompanied minors, are especially vulnerable to the dangers of smuggling and are at risk of being recruited by criminal networks and trafficking rings. Children are often unable to report abuse, which is likely to fuel myths of life improvements following the smuggling venture.

Refugees and asylum seekers

Smugglers are often asylum seekers' only way to escape war and persecution. The smuggling process may exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities of refugees and asylum seekers. Smuggled migrants are commonly recruited at refugee camps and reception centres.

Persons with disability

Persons with physical or psychological disabilities require special care. They are easy targets for trafficking in persons for the purpose of illegal activities. With the numbers of smuggled migrants increasing significantly and being composed even more so by populations escaping war and violence, the rate of persons with disability among migratory flows is likely to also increase.


The poor, childless, frail or isolated elderly comprise a high-risk group in terms of vulnerability.

The above table does not intend to imply that women, children, refugees, persons with disabilities and the elderly are per se vulnerable. Nor does it suggest that only said groups may be vulnerable. Rather, as pointed out in the second column, it aims to highlight that these groups often face conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. In other words, what causes vulnerability are specific conditions (such as gender or racial discrimination, isolation, language limitations, lack of support structures, financial difficulties etc). These categorizations - cognisant that categorizations should always be considered with a degree of caution - operate as an 'alert' to draw the attention of authorities and relevant stakeholders to the potential special attention and care these individuals may require. Rather than addressing the table above as it is presented, the lecturer may decide to ask the students what conditions they believe are likely to enhance the vulnerability of migrants and, specifically, smuggled migrants.

When smuggled migrants and smugglers belong to the same family, social group or community, smuggled migrants might be more vulnerable to stigmatisation or fear of retaliation. Cultural practices (such as Voodoo) may also influence migrants' behaviour, including as far as potential cooperation with authorities is concerned. This is not to say that smuggled migrants' vulnerabilities are only caused by smugglers. Rather, these might pre-exist and might also be related to the need to leave one's country in the first place. Efforts to counter migrant smuggling should therefore be context-sensitive as the risk exists that they might enhance existing vulnerabilities and lack efficacy.

In understanding the dynamics of migrant smuggling, it is important to bear in mind that smuggled migrants give their consent to the smuggling venture. Migrants are not deceived or coerced in that respect. This reality does not affect the responsibility of smugglers, the unlawful nature of migrant smuggling nor the status of smuggled migrants as vulnerable persons in need of, and entitled to, assistance and protection. Likewise, as underlined in other Modules (such as Modules 1 and 11), while migrants consent to being transported to a certain country without fulfilling the legal requirements to do so, they would not consent to the specific form or circumstances of travel. For example, they would not consent to substandard or exploitative treatment, violence or otherwise dangerous conditions.

Next: Profile of Smugglers
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