Sexual and gender-based violence and other protection risks

Foto di Aibor omokhodion da Pixabay

While escaping sexual and gender-based violence was a common reason for girls to migrate in the first place, nearly every girl we spoke to reported having either experienced some form of sexual and gender-based violence – such as rape, sexual assault, and harassment – or witnessed it happen to someone close to them along their journey. The perpetrators they referred to were smugglers or traffickers, other migrants, police, and members of armed groups. In some cases, a fear of retribution or detention deterred victims from reporting.

Although across contexts, boys were seen as being more likely to suffer from physical abuse and attacks during the journey than girls, none of the boys we spoke with mentioned personally experiencing sexual abuse. This does not mean it did not occur; key informants in Italy noted how stigma and shame dissuade many from reporting such incidents, although some boys did allude to it indirectly, primarily by referring to incidents they had heard of or witnessed.

Some girls traveling with older adults, especially family members, seemed to be less vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence due to the real and perceived protection these travel companions provided.

Other times, the adults they traveled with were responsible for the violence. Key informants in Morocco noted that many of the girls they had seen were taken by the men of their community and used as bargaining chips, such as sexual slaves, to cross borders. They would tell the girls, “We take you with us on the migratory journey, we are going to offer you a better life (often in Europe), but, in exchange, you are going to help us cross the borders.” A 23-year-old Cameroonian girl interviewed in Tunisia reported being gang-raped by an armed group in Algeria and contracting HIV as a result. She explained that their smuggler had led them straight to the armed group, who proceeded to attack, rob, and rape them.

With the rising number of female traffickers, some experts are concerned that it has become easier to target girls for trafficking and economic exploitation. Tunisia’s National Commission for the Fight Against Human Trafficking (INLTP) recorded an increase in the number of women traffickers and reports that more than 53% of identified traffickers in Tunisia are women. Some key informants described situations of debt bondage upon arrival, either because the migrants owed money to their smugglers and facilitators.

Some children face indebtedness to their communities of origin, who had helped them finance the trip. “Often, communities themselves will pay for the migrant’s plane ticket. They will tell them that they can work as maids or in a call center, etc. The deal here is that when they arrive in Morocco, they will make them work for about six to eight months, and the migrant women will have to give their full salaries to reimburse the price of the plane ticket.” (KII,Morocco).

Many child migrants struggle with multiple, overlapping vulnerabilities that increase their level of exposure to trafficking. Some children begin with these vulnerabilities in their places of origin, but they may also be magnified by contextual factors along their journey.

A concurrent study on child trafficking in the Horn of Africa identified several key personal, situational, and contextual factors that, when combined, have the potential to compound child migrants’ risk of exposure to trafficking.

Shared findings from the East African Migrations Study reveal compounded vulnerabilities among child migrants:


  • Child migrants who do not speak Arabic
  • Child migrants from sub-Saharan Africa/West Africa


  • Child migrants with abusive situations back home
  • Girls fleeing forced marriage or experiencing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)
  • Protracted conditions of deprivation and irregularity
  • Unaccompanied and separated children


  • Children fleeing from conflict/violence, potential asylum seekers, and refugees.

Several interviewees described situations of human trafficking. Marie, a 14-year-old from Cameroon, described multiple instances in Morocco and Algeria where she was locked in houses with other girls and women, subjected to systematic rape. Each time, her mother had to pay a fee to secure her release from the house.

Key informants in Italy similarly mentioned the use of “connection houses” in North Africa, which are described as trafficking chains where girls and women are housed together and groomed for prostitution before being taken onward to Italy.

The risk of becoming pregnant during the journey was noted by several informants, and improvised abortions were mentioned as a response to unwanted pregnancies. However, these abortions carried heavy health risks for the girls involved. According to a migration researcher in Spain: “There was a 13-year-old girl who was separated from the adults she came with, and we discovered that she was pregnant. And she told us that this had happened before to her on several occasions, […] that the men she had traveled with for some time told her that she had a parasite growing inside of her and that they had to get rid of it. So, they had performed two abortions on her, and this was going to be the third.”

from: “Girls on the move in North Africa” (SAVE THE CHILDREN)

Border crossing and transport strategies

Medical care