Issue 67 - Article 5

Applying information management tools to detect and address vulnerabilities in the context of mixed migration

September 15, 2016
Amelia Stoenescu, Ivona Zakoska, Daniel Szabo and Debora Gonzalez Tejero
Vulnerable migrants in Gevgelija, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, catching a train to the northern border with Serbia.
10 min read

Text message: We don’t have any news if usual schedule of 4 trains (max 940 migrants) in 24 hours will be changed. For now, only one train is announced for 8.00 PM.

In 2014, the majority of Europe’s mixed migration flows passed through the Central Mediterranean route, with Italy as the first point of arrival. By contrast, 2015 saw a significant increase through the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan route, which includes Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. From the beginning of 2015 to the end of June 2016, more than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, including vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied and separated children, pregnant women and people with disabilities. National authorities relied on the International Organization for Migration (IOM) information-gathering and -sharing systems to identify risks and coordinate the humanitarian response. This article outlines how early warning networks and the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) helped make regularly updated data available on migrant routes, numbers and protection risks.

Information gaps in an evolving emergency

For Europe’s increasing mixed migration flows, the lack of consolidated information-sharing mechanisms, and the absence of data on specific risks such as trafficking, soon became apparent. Considering the scale and speed of migration flows, traditional counter-trafficking approaches – initial screening and in-depth interviews – struggled to keep up. Countries in the region already employed various counter-trafficking measures, but these identification and assistance mechanisms were quickly overwhelmed in a context where thousands of people were crossing borders each day. To contribute to a better-targeted response and more timely identification of needs, IOM introduced three systems for information collection and dissemination on mixed migration flows in the Western Balkans region: an early warning information-sharing network; a Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM); and counter-trafficking surveys.

The Early Warning Information Sharing Network: the first step in coordinated action

During the peak days in the latter part of 2015, more than 5,000 migrants and refugees crossed the border from Greece to FYROM each day. According to IOM and UNHCR estimates just over 10,000 migrants entered FYROM on 18 October 2015, while the highest numbers were registered on 9 November the same year, when some 11,500 migrants and refugees crossed the border from Greece. The unprecedented number of people moving across state borders prompted the FYROM government to declare a state of emergency in August. With initial support provided through its Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism (MEFM), IOM rolled out the Early Warning Information Sharing Network (EWISN). EWISN is an informal structure for real-time information exchange between IOM staff, national authorities, other service providers and civil society organisations providing assistance. The Network provides 24-hour instant messaging-based communication between IOM staff regarding mixed migration flows at transit points throughout the Balkan route. Staff at different points on the route send texts containing information on migrant arrivals, migrants on the move and time of departure from one point, with estimates of when the group will reach the next point on the route. When, in November 2015, the number of crossings into FYROM from Greece reached its peak of 102,776 cumulative arrivals a month, the Network was fully operational and allowed for effective coordination of activities between IOM staff and institutions, international relief organisations and civil society organisations active at local level.

Text message: IOM Greece (Athens) to IOM Skopje (October 2015): 1,379 migrants expected to arrive in mainland between 06:15 and 09:40. The first group is expected to reach the border after 19:00.

In its initial implementation, EWISN included the Greek islands, FYROM and Serbia. As mixed migration flows increased significantly, other countries, such as Croatia and Hungary, were added. Information received was disseminated by focal points to an array of service providers. Through the Network, IOM staff communicated relevant information, for instance on migrants and refugees with mobility difficulties, helping national authorities to organise specific transportation to the next transit point.

Whilst the Network proved highly beneficial in sharing rapid-action information, it was only the starting point in understanding the complex journeys of migrants and refugees. To gain better insight into the structure and profile of people on the move, and the assistance they required, a more indepth data collection intervention was required.

The Displacement Tracking Matrix and Flow Monitoring Surveys: fostering a deeper understanding of mixed migration flows

Text message: IOM Skopje to IOM Belgrade (October 2015): Today a train with 8 wagons (app. 1,050 migrants) left at 12.15. Please confirm when train arrives, if field staff is present at entry point.

IOM began rolling out Flow Monitoring Surveys (FMS), a component of its Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), comprising a comprehensive data collection methodology and standardised questionnaire to be used along the Western Balkans route. The FMS offer a way of observing and better understanding trends in mixed migration flows over time through structured data collection and analysis and interviews with migrants and refugees. Flow monitoring was implemented at entry, transit and exit points in Greece, FYROM, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. The surveys capture data on the socioeconomic background of respondents, their country of origin/habitual residence, reasons for leaving their country of origin/habitual residence, the routes they have taken to reach the Western Balkans, who they are travelling with and their intended countries of final destination. A standard set of questions is applied across the route to ensure a basis for cross-reference and analysis.

Text message: IOM Skopje to IOM Belgrade (November 2015): Train departing 9.40 a.m. (575 migrants) among which 11 with disabilities and 7 pregnant women (observed).

According to the survey findings, the top five transit countries outside the Western Balkan route are Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Bulgaria. Data gathered through the surveys in the Western Balkans up to 30 June 2016 shows that, of migrants interviewed, the most common profile is a 28-year-old male who had achieved, up to the point of departure, a secondary education. Generally, he travels with a group fleeing armed conflict or political persecution. He usually pays between an estimated $1,000 and $5,000 for his journey. At the time of writing, 11,089 surveys had been conducted with migrants and refugees travelling through the Western Balkan route.

While the Flow Monitoring Surveys and the Network captured important data on the journeys of migrants and refugees, they did not shed light on the dangers migrants faced during their journey. The limited opportunities for legal migration created a favourable environment for trafficking. IOM staff operating at different points of the migration route, including on the EWISN and FMS implementation, increasingly came across reports of trafficking and exploitation. To address growing concerns about this phenomenon, a counter-trafficking survey was added to the FMS.

Counter-trafficking surveys: gauging the extent of trafficking in mixed migration flows

Text message: IOM Skopje to IOM Belgrade (December 2015): No trains today. We got info on 460 migrants, however train has not been sent. Apparently they are waiting for at least 600, to arrange transportation.

One significant difficulty facing Western Balkan countries affected by migrant and refugee movements was recognising and identifying trafficked or exploited people, or people potentially at risk. Given the short-term nature of migrants’ stays in many transit points, as well as reluctance among survivors or those at risk of trafficking to seek help and protection, identifying and addressing trafficking proved an immense challenge. Generally, there is a shortage of reliable, consistent and user-friendly primary data concerning many aspects of trafficking.

During counter-trafficking surveys, IOM staff at transit points on the Western Balkan route note information on the presence of predatory behaviour, trafficking and other exploitative practices, ranging from forced or unpaid labour to captivity and offers of arranged marriage. Given that all surveys conducted by IOM are entirely anonymous, the aim is not to identify and refer trafficking survivors as such – though staff do have a standard procedure on how to handle situations where individuals come forward to report an incident. The findings of the counter-trafficking survey are intended to provide an indication of the likely prevalence of trafficking, and improved understanding of the circumstances in which human trafficking can occur.

Text message: Field Data Collector to IOM Skopje Counter Trafficking Focal Point (March 2016): There is a 16 year old girl from Nigeria in the last group and is traveling alone and with clear signs of distress. She declines to talk with male colleagues.

The survey analysis and findings present clear and compelling evidence of predatory behaviour, including abuse, exploitation or practices which might amount to human trafficking. Based on collected data, out of 4,528 respondents surveyed, 6.5% answered ‘yes’ to at least one indicator of trafficking and exploitative practices, based on personal experience. Six questions in the counter-trafficking survey seek information on the respondent and whether they have during their journey: worked or performed activities without getting the payment they expected; been forced to perform work or activities against their will; been approached by someone offering employment; been approached by someone offering to arrange a marriage (for the respondent or someone in his or her family); been kept at a certain location against their will; or been aware of instances where migrants/refugees en route had been approached by people offering cash in exchange for blood, organs or other body parts. An additional 1% of respondents said that, even though they had not directly experienced similar situations, a member of their family travelling with them had. Among the 4,528 respondents, 0.5% said they knew of cases during their journey where someone had been offered cash in exchange for giving blood, organs or a body part. In the majority of cases, these people were friends or relatives of the respondents.

Nationals from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria had the highest percentages of positive responses to indicators of trafficking or other exploitative practices. Single people or people whose marital status was unknown, men, people travelling alone and young adults between 20 and 30 years of age were more likely to answer ‘yes’ as well.

The results of the counter-trafficking surveys have led some of the countries along the route to examine existing indicators for identifying survivors of trafficking and exploitation. Consequently, new indicators have been developed that are better able to detect risks of predatory behaviour in the context of mass mixed migration flows.

Ways forward

Text message: IOM Skopje to IOM Belgrade (March 2016): – This morning there’s no entry at the border. No news when people will be allowed to cross the border. There are 82 people inside the center.

The creation of an information-sharing network filled information gaps between national authorities, and among national authorities, local service providers and civil society organisations. The surveys deepened understanding of the factors determining these flows and the profiles of the migrants and refugees who comprise them. The integration of a counter-trafficking module in the survey sets a positive example for humanitarian emergencies more generally, and forms a solid basis for future counter-trafficking programming in different humanitarian contexts.

The work done in the Western Balkans is part of IOM’s ongoing effort to collect information on displacement in crises and emergencies. In 2014–15, 14 million displaced people were tracked worldwide through DTM. The breadth and depth of the collected data mean that IOM is in a unique position to correlate information in the country of origin with the information provided by the migrants surveyed en route.

Following the EU–Turkey deal in March 2016, flows in the Western Balkans have decreased significantly. Nevertheless, movements at borders are still closely followed by IOM staff as there is potential for the situation to change over time. Concurrently, IOM staff have refocused their efforts on the situation of stranded migrants by implementing a more in-depth Flow Monitoring Survey. Throughout 2016, IOM rolled out projects in the countries of origin of migrants and refugees in order to further understand the complex nature of mixed migration flows.

Amelia Stoenescu, Ivona Zakoska, Daniel Szabo and Debora Gonzalez Tejero are Displacement Tracking Matrix support team members. This article has been drafted with the support of their Assistance to Vulnerable Migrants Unit colleagues. For more information on migration flows to Europe see:


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