Last year, there were around 272 million international migrants in the world, which is equal to around 3.5% of the total population (UN DESA). While many people choose to migrate, there is a significant amount of people who are forced to do so, making them asylum seekers and refugees. Acquiring the title ‘refugee’ dramatically increases the vulnerability of the individual, leaving them subject to exploitation, human trafficking, and slavery. The dynamics of this situation adapt over time, and significantly so during the ‘transit’ phase of their journey. In recent times, we have witnessed a new element to this process; becoming trapped in transit.
The notion of migrants in ‘transit’ conveys ideas of temporariness, of movement, and of passing through. There is no official definition of ‘transit migration’, and the term is usually understood as the temporary stay of migrants in one location, hence the terms ‘transit country’ and ‘transit route’. Given the lack of definition and obvious conceptual difficulties associated with notions of temporariness, it is important to ask at what point does the transit country becomes the final destination? This phenomenon has been widely recognised as an increased amount of people become trapped in transit. This is often closely linked to a range of human rights implications.
The issues migrants and refugees face when they are trapped in transit are wide-ranging and life-threatening. Increased vulnerability due to the fact they are trapped in transit accounts for some harrowing figures; according to the International Labour Organisation and the International Organisation for Migration, over 6 million international migrants were victims of modern slavery and forced labour in 2016, and a further 11.4 million victims of sexual exploitation. This is further reinforced by an IOM survey which found that 71% of all migrants who travel from the North of Africa towards Europe have experienced some forms of exploitation and trafficking. These figures are linked closely to the situational and individual vulnerability of migrants in transit, which relates to the current circumstances as well as individual intersectional issues. This is worsened when they become destitute or ‘trapped’ in the transit country.
As well as having detrimental, egregious consequences for the migrants, the implications of the transition from a transit country to a final destination have their long-term impacts on the local communities. As the transition begins, it undermines the social fabric of the community, resulting in growing tensions between different cultural and ethnic groups. This lays the foundations for conflicts and violence and perpetuates the violence and abuse experienced by migrants in these spaces.
The IOM and Amnesty International have made a call to the international community to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Libya, where thousands of African migrants are trapped in jails, camps, and detention centers where they are subject to extreme exploitation and inhumane treatment. But what is being done about this?
In 2016, for the first time, the UN discussed the issues relating to migration, refugees, and transit zones, and recognised the urgent need to adapt and improve the approach to human mobility. This was a move in the right direction, and since then the high commissioner has proposed a range of recommendations to bridge the protection gap for migrants in transit. For instance, easier access to justice, provision of adequate rescue services at every international border, and make targetted efforts to end the abuse of those in transit and to respect their human rights.
Despite these recommendations, there are still an overwhelming amount of people trapped in transit today. The harsh halt in their journey results in a kind of limbo state of existence, often resulting in migrants staying for uncertain and lengthy periods. This is a complex piece to the mobility puzzle and requires urgent attention.