Threats migrants face during their migratory journeys through transit countries

The threats related to migration through transit countries affect migrant’s capabilities and aspirations. Their journeys from country of origin to destination is a non-linear process but may take years, and initial chosen routes may change as well as the desired country of destination. Countries of transit may become destination countries, and vice versa, as migrants experience life-changing events influencing their decisions to settle or continue migration, or build ‘spontaneous social networks’ throughout their stay in different countries. Through the analysis of 138 reports from security practitioners, policy-makers, non-governmental and civil society organizations the PERCEPTIONS project identifies a series of threats migrants face during their journeys across or their stay in transit countries. 

When starting their journey, forced and voluntary migrants engaging in irregular migration are often unaware of how long it will take to arrive to their desired destination.  They are sometimes unaware what their final route will be, as these may depend on, and indeed be modified by a multitude of factors including, border patrol presence, amount of funds, the creation of ‘spontaneous social networks’ (Collyer 2007), weather conditions or, smugglers or traffickers’ itineraries (Kuschminder, Bresser and Siegel, 2015; Kuschminder and Waidler 2020).

Traditional categories related to “origin” and “destination” countries name them as “host” and “home” countries or “sending” and “receiving” countries too. The first pair is preferred by de Haas et al (2020), considered to be less problematic:  less moralistic and essentialist than “host and home” and less state-led than “sending and receiving”. However, all those dichotomies can be considered as simplistic as the world is not divided into these two categories of countries (Haas et al. 2020: 28-30). In addition, globalisation has meant longer journeys and more complex migratory processes, making it recommendable to avoid the perception of the processes and countries in a binary way more appropriate for permanent migration and old migration processes. One of the new categories to incorporate is that of “transit” countries in which migrants spend some months or even years waiting for an opportunity to get to the “desired destination”. The term “transit country” has been contested and there is hardly a consensus for its meaning. Some of its critiques include the fact that it represents migration as a linear purely physical process often ignoring its non-linear nature and social aspects, that it undermines how countries labelled as “transit” countries are also “destination” countries, and that it has been applied as a policy concept for political purposes increasing securitisation and undermining migrants rights (Crawley and Jones 2020). 

While acknowledging these critiques, it is important to place attention on the way migrants perceive the countries they either ‘go through’ or ‘live in’ during months or years while intending to reach their “desired destination”. During this time, migrants may develop social ties and indeed integrate in the country they once considered “transit” and decide to make it their permanent residence. Sometimes this process is forced upon, as they run out of funds or are unable to cross the intended border. Common examples of transit countries becoming destination countries include Turkey and Morocco, as well as sometimes European countries such as Italy and Greece. Interestingly it has also been found that at times the initial desired destination can later become ‘transit’ as life conditions there are found to be harder than expected. This was the case for Africans in Istambul who initially intended to settle and then moved on due to racial violence and police harassment (Brewer and Yükseker 2009), and Kurds in Greece who found living conditions to be too harsh and the waiting period to obtain asylum too long (Jordan and Düvell 2002). In order to overcome some of those criticisms, recent scholarly literature and “in order to capture the liminality of transit migrants” the concept of “transit spaces” have been coined (Kuschminder and Triandafyllidou 2020: 207).

The EU-funded PERCEPTIONS project intends to shed light on the perceived threats related to migration in those “transit” countries and has already begun doing so through an initial Systematic Literature Reviews (SLR), the findings of which are published on the project’s website. The SLR compiled information from 221 documents from academic sources (PERCEPTIONS D2.2). This deliverable acknowledges the difficulty of defining transit and destination countries “since often countries that were originally perceived to be transit countries end up becoming destination countries, due to a multitude of factors including but not exhaustive to lack of money to move forward, social networks, and integration progress made in the current host country, fears due to the need to resort to smugglers to move forward or an inability to move forward due to increased border controls. One interesting study is that of Carling and Schewel (2018) who conceptualize the difficulties of migration in their aspiration/ability model” (PERCEPTIONS D 2.2: 32).

A second Deliverable analyses the situation of migrants based on reports provided by a total of thirteen different countries, which for the purpose of analysis were then categorized as origin, transit or destination countries. In this sense, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt were categorized as origin countries, Kosovo and Bulgaria as transit countries, and Italy, Spain, Germany, UK, Greece, Cyprus, Austria and Belgium as arrival and/or destination countries. As highlighted above and in the PERCEPTIONS Deliverable 2.4, the classification is not absolute. Countries at first considered by migrants as transit countries may end up being destination countries due to a variety of factors. The fact that migrants may spend years in a country considered transit raises the question of for how long a migrant might stay in that country before it is considered a destination (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Situation of Migrants in Transit 2015). Moreover, countries may be transit countries for some migrants, destination for others and origin for others, as is the case of Algeria (IOM 2021), Tunisia (Garrelli & Tazziolli 2016) or Morocco which for some migrants is an origin country and for others a transit country to reach Europe, yet increasingly has become a destination country for migrants initially intending to reach Spain or other European countries (Ares Mateos et al. 2020). 

The review showed that reports coming from destination countries (79.8%) exceeded by far those analysed from transit (7.2%) and origin countries (13%), leading to an overrepresentation of destination countries’ perspectives. When considering reports related to transit countries, the most frequently mentioned threats to migrants were human smuggling and trafficking (25.0%), followed by discrimination (18.9%), and detention and deportation (12.5%) and violence and abuse (12.5%). As for countries of origin human smuggling and trafficking was also the most mentioned (25.0%) together with domestic and violent extremism (25%), followed by detention and deportation (19.0%). In destination countries the threats to migrants mentioned the most were also human smuggling and trafficking (16.2%), followed by detention and deportation (10.3) and discrimination (7.8%). 

Human smuggling and trafficking have proven to be of great concern, as an increasing number of people resort to criminal organizations in order to succeed in increasing difficult migratory journeys. While human smuggling and human trafficking are two different phenomena -human smuggling being the assistance of migrants to cross borders illegally for a financial or material gain, and trafficking involving coercion for the purpose of exploitation-, the two have been grouped together in this report due to the fact that they both involve organized crime and criminal networks. Moreover, the relationship between them seems to be increasing. The report found several instances of trafficking where unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable to trafficking. For instance, it has been documented that many undocumented unaccompanied minors are trying to cross Greece in order to reach their relatives in other parts of Europe and are being targeted by organised criminal networks with several purposes: “to kidnap them, harvest their organs and sell them to the increasingly demanding human organ black market” (PERCEPTIONS D2.4, p. 33). 

Migrants also risk being detained and deported before having arrived in their desired country of destination or once there, they may become ‘trapped’ in overcrowded camps with bad sanitary conditions such as in the Canary Islands or in Lesbos.  They can also be placed in detention centres, for amounts of time that exceed the maximum time limit of the lawful detention period and be intimidated by border officials. Furthermore, the tendency to portray migration as a threat to transit and/or host countries makes them vulnerable to discrimination and can raise social tensions within the host society and ultimately lead to the rise of anti- immigrant sentiments and hate crime.


Authors: Isabel Bazaga & Sara Carrasco


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Kuschminder, K., Bresser, J., and Siegel, M. (2015). Irregular Migration Routes to Europe and Factors Influencing Migrants Choices. Maastritch Government School of Governance. 

Kuschminder, K. & Triandafyllidou, A. (2020) Smuggling, Trafficking, and Extortion: New Conceptual and Policy Challenges on the Libyan Route to Europe, Antipode, 25 (1), 206-226.

Kuschminder, K. & Waidler, J. (2020) At Europe’s frontline: factors determining migrants decision making for onwards migration from Greece and Turkey, Migration and Development, 9:2, 188-208, DOI: 10.1080/21632324.2019.1601829 

IOM: Algeria country page. (2021). Retrieved from:

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2015) Situation of Migrants in Transit.  Retrieved from: 



Migration, threats, transit countries, routes

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