Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Overcoming Barriers to Preventing the Human Trafficking of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Greece


Laura Schack


Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Laura Schack. Laura is a Data Analyst in the Aman Safety Team at STOP THE TRAFFIK, a globally operating charity that aims to prevent and disrupt human trafficking. She is also a PhD Graduand in Politics and Information Security at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Refugees and other people on the move are at a high risk of human trafficking and being trapped into situations of modern slavery due to their precarious living situations and their vulnerability to criminals seeking to prey on and exploit them. The relationship between human trafficking, modern slavery and refugee movements towards Europe is demonstrated particularly starkly in Libya, where people trying to reach Europe are routinely imprisoned, forced into labour under inhuman conditions, and even ‘sold into sex slavery or to smugglers by detention centre staff’.

However, the human trafficking of migrants and refugees occurs in a more insidious and overlooked manner to people on the move everywhere, including throughout Europe. In Greece, refugees and asylum-seekers are especially targeted by traffickers for sexual and labour exploitation. A vital first step towards tackling human trafficking and protecting people on the move is to develop greater awareness of the risks of trafficking, both among vulnerable communities and the NGOs and state actors seeking to support them.

Addressing these gaps is a key goal of STOP THE TRAFFIK’s Aman Safety team which aims to prevent the human trafficking of asylum seekers and refugees in Greece and Turkey through building risk aware and resilient communities. Between December 2020 and December 2021, we ran the Seeking Sanctuary in Greece campaign which used geo-targeted advertisements on Facebook and Instagram to reach vulnerable young people in Greece as well as those waiting to cross to Greece in Turkish border provinces such as Izmir. Through this campaign, we shared safety information about the risks of trafficking and signposted people seeking help and advice to our partner organisations who could offer them support on the ground. The campaign targeted refugees, asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors aged 13 to 21 from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their own languages: Arabic, Farsi, Bengali, Urdu and French.

In this post, I present some key findings of the campaign and outline patterns of the human trafficking of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece. I highlight the lack of awareness and available data which pose barriers to action and explain how the Aman Safety team works to overcome them.

The human trafficking of refugees in Greece

We identified key patterns of the trafficking and exploitation of young refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece based on interviews with experts and organisations on the ground, findings from our pre-campaign survey answered by over 700 young people in Greece and Turkey, and lessons learned in communication with people who reached out to us.

We found that unaccompanied minors, who often feel alone and isolated, are particularly likely to be targeted by traffickers upon arrival in Greece. Traffickers most commonly recruit potential victims by befriending and grooming them before making face-to-face offers of fake jobs and offers of help in exchange for payment later. We further identified a set of enabling factors which make young people in Greece particularly vulnerable to accepting offers of work or help from traffickers. These include the pressure to send money home to family members; a lack of money to pay smugglers for costs already incurred by their travel to Greece or the lack of funds to pay for onward travel to Europe; experiences of homelessness and poverty; language barriers; not understanding their legal rights; and not knowing of or trusting support organisations. Furthermore, due to long delays in the asylum process during which there is no right to work, and insufficient financial support once asylum has been granted, people often experience financial distress and are therefore particularly vulnerable to labour exploitation. These factors can make them ripe pickings for traffickers who identify their vulnerabilities and capitalise on their need for friendship, shelter, money and support. Traffickers then control their victims through methods of violence and abuse, threats of imprisonment or deportation, and withholding wages.

The most common types of trafficking experienced by young people surveyed in our campaign were labour exploitation and sex trafficking. Many minors especially reported being targeted for sexual exploitation upon arrival in Greece. For example, a 17-year-old refugee who saw our campaign on Instagram told us that: ‘I saw it with my own eyes […] Young girls were forced into prostitution and sexually exploited, because of poverty. This is true of boys as well. Most of the refugees who come to Europe think they are in a safe place, unaware of the problems they face.’

These findings are supported by other available data which, although not representative of the entire situation, can offer indications of common patterns. Data from the Greek referral mechanism run by the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA) and the (oft critiqued) US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report suggest that adults and children from countries including Afghanistan, Cameroon, the DRC, Iran, Pakistan and Syria are subjected to labour exploitation, particularly through debt bondage in the agriculture industry. Meanwhile, the TIP report claims that refugee and migrant women, especially those living in Reception and Identification Centres on the Greek islands, are ‘highly vulnerable to trafficking’, and that unaccompanied minors, especially from Afghanistan, ‘engage in survival sex and are vulnerable to trafficking’. A 2017 report by Harvard University further outlined how failures of the Greek reception and child protection systems essentially enable the widespread sexual abuse of children who are ‘intrinsically more vulnerable’ to ‘the predatory exploitation of a flourishing human trafficking industry’.

Barriers to prevention: lack of awareness and data

While these reports and findings from our campaign offer a greater understanding of trafficking patterns in Greece, there is still insufficient data for a complete or detailed understanding of trafficking and how traffickers conduct their illegal operations. As is the case in many regions, a key issue is the lack of awareness within relevant authorities. In part, this is likely because human trafficking is less visible than the wide range of other problems affecting refugee populations in Greece. Additionally, the systems developed to identify and support those who have been trafficked or exploited are not as effective as they could be. The TIP report found that Greek authorities regularly do not consistently screen asylum seekers and undocumented migrants for trafficking indicators for a variety of reasons including insufficient training, a lack of resources, and overwhelmed capacity. This means that there is a lack of available data on human trafficking cases in Greece, which is both caused by and further exacerbates the lack of awareness.

Furthermore, there is a lack of awareness of the risks of human trafficking among vulnerable communities themselves. A key finding of our campaign was that, of 721 pre-campaign survey respondents, 82% thought that no help or support was available for them, were unsure where to find it, or did not know whom they could trust. Furthermore, 63% of respondents did not know about human trafficking or said they had only ‘heard about it’ but wanted to learn more. This lack of awareness means that people vulnerable to being trafficked are not equipped with knowledge about the dangers of accepting offers from potential traffickers and do not know that there are other options available to them, such as seeking support from the many NGOs on the ground working to help refugees and asylum-seekers.

Overcoming the barriers to prevention: the Aman Safety Team’s approach

Responding to this lack of awareness among vulnerable communities, a principal aim of our prevention campaigns is to share knowledge with people at risk of being trafficked. We provide materials which inform people about the risks of trafficking and give advice on how to stay safe. We furthermore provide contact information of partner NGOs on the ground who are able to support people who need help and directly connect people who contact us asking for help with organisations.

In this regard, our Seeking Sanctuary in Greece campaign was a success. 110,100 young people saw our advertisements on social media and 11.5 % of them (12,664) clicked through to our campaign landing page with more detailed information and safety advice. Over 200 people directly contacted support organisations from our landing page, and we personally signposted a further 82 young people to safety. Partner organisations reported a notable increase in calls and messages following the launch of our campaign. One young person whom we connected to an organisation which provided him with shelter and legal support told us that: ‘I had many problems. I was considering selling one of my organs to solve my problems in Greece. I now have good living conditions. Thank you to your good organisation.’

Campaign engagement was particularly high among 13- to 17-year-olds in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece and in Izmir in Turkey. The map below shows campaign engagement by geographic location and the number of unique click links to our landing page.

Trafficking in Greece
Seeking Sanctuary in Greece campaign engagement by unique click links and region

Following the successful campaign in Greece, we have recently launched two new geo-targeted social media campaigns aimed at preventing the organ trafficking and sexual exploitation of asylum seekers and refugees in Istanbul. Through these campaigns, we are gathering further data on patterns of trafficking and exploitation in Turkey.

We further seek to address the problem of insufficient data on human trafficking cases and trends in Greece through our Power of 10 data-sharing projects, in which we partner with NGOs supporting asylum seekers and refugees on the ground. Through these projects, we aim to increase awareness of human trafficking, learn from other organisations with expertise, and encourage data collection and data sharing of trafficking cases. Shared cases are added to our database of trafficking incidents in Greece and Turkey with which we seek to further identify patterns related to how trafficking networks operate in order to know how best to disrupt them. We will be launching a new Power of 10 project in Greece next year and encourage organisations operating in Greece who are interested in joining the project to contact us. If you are or know of an organisation who would like to be involved and contribute anonymised data about trafficking cases in Greece, Turkey or elsewhere to our global trafficking database, the Traffik Analysis Hub, please feel free to contact us.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

L. Schack. (2022) Overcoming Barriers to Preventing the Human Trafficking of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Greece. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/12/overcoming-barriers-preventing-human-trafficking. Accessed on: 08/12/2023


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