A Sharper Lens on Vulnerability – Key Insights from Two New MMC Studies on Vulnerability along the Central Mediterranean Route

‘Vulnerability’ has been increasingly used as a lens for humanitarian actors to understand and implement protection programming, deliver assistance and advocate for the promotion of rights for people on the move, regardless of their legal status. In this vein, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have advanced this thinking through separate conceptual frameworks and guidelines. To further refine the micro-level perspective of refugee and migrant vulnerability and contribute to approaches that seek to uncover how people on the move get exposed to protection abuses, the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) is releasing two studies which based on 15,000+ interviews with people on the move in West & North Africa statistically model the factors that affect the vulnerability of refugees and migrants. The first focuses on people who have left their origin countries in West Africa and are moving through the region in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; the second analyses the experiences of refugee and migrants who have reached Libya, largely from West and East African origin countries.

The reports attempt to answer a series of questions across West and North Africa including: Are certain people on the move more vulnerable to incidents than others, and why? Is there a relationship between the likelihood of experiencing protection incidents and people’s origin, language, age, gender, intended destination or the way they interact with smugglers? In other words, what are the microlevel determinants of refugees’ and migrants’ vulnerability?

This article sets out the key conclusions from the two reports, highlighting the differences and commonalities between the two studies.

Vulnerability of Certain Nationalities

Across both West and North Africa, it was found that the country of origin of a respondent was a significant predictor in vulnerability to protection incidents. Results from data collection in West Africa suggest that refugees and migrants from other countries, including ECOWAS states, were more likely to experience all protection incidents than respondents from the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger). Meanwhile, results in North Africa suggest that Nigerian, Eritrean, and Chadian respondents were significantly more vulnerable to protection incidents in Libya compared to other nationalities when controlling for various social-demographic, and migration journey factors. Moreover, the West Africa report examines the ways in which language barriers play a role in vulnerability protection. Refugees and migrants from non-Francophone countries were found to be more likely to experience a range of protection incident types, including death, sexual assault, robbery, and extortion.

Vulnerability of Women to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Libya, women were found to be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse than their male counterparts when controlling for demographic, economic, and family factors. In West Africa, the analysis indicates that female respondents were more than four-times more likely to report sexual assault or harassment than their male peers regardless of various social and migration related factors. While women surveyed in Libya were found to be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, female respondents in West Africa were also found to be more vulnerable to physical abuse and robbery than male respondents.

Vulnerability of Men to Detention

The results from both regions suggest that refugee and migrant men were particularly vulnerable to detention. In Libya, this may be linked to the  fact  that  detainees  often  serve  as  a  source  of  manual  labour  and,  in  some cases, have been forcibly conscripted by armed groups, as explored in MMC’s 2019 research on the Determinants of Detention. Also specific to Libya, analysis indicates the greater vulnerability of young men as compared to their older peers. Men surveyed in Libya were also found to be more vulnerable to witnessing migrant death, kidnapping, robbery and physical abuse.

Vulnerability and Smuggling Dynamics

The two studies employed slightly difference approaches to analyse the impact of smuggling on vulnerability and the likelihood to experience incidents. In West Africa, results suggest that whether a refugee or migrant engages a smuggler is a useful predictor of their likelihood of experiencing or witnessing protection abuses. However, this does not necessarily mean that the smuggler is responsible for the protection incidents, as smuggler use implies that a journey is being undertaken irregularly, and, by extension is likely to be along a riskier route. In Libya, the majority of surveyed refugees and migrants rely on smugglers to facilitate their journeys to North Africa and to Europe. This limits the ability to analyse whether the use of a smuggler affects one’s exposure to protection incidents, given the lack of variance within the data. Instead, the analysis of the Libya data focused on the modality of smuggler payments, and revealed that those who paid their smuggler through work were more at risk to experience a protection incident, whereas those who paid their smuggler at arrival, or had a payment scheme to pay along the journey were less likely to report experiencing a protection incident.

Access to Money, and Working Along the Journey

In both regions, analysis suggests that refugees and migrants who interrupt their journeys to find work to fund onward travel may be particularly vulnerable to protection incidents. In West Africa, it was found that those who stopped to work along the journey were, among other things, more vulnerable to sexual or physical abuse. This could be linked to dangerous work or to situations of trafficking and exploitation. Moreover, the findings from respondents interviewed in Libya suggest that those who used digital money transfer services to access money were less vulnerable compared to those who did not, suggesting the existence of strategies that refugees and migrants can undertake to reduce their vulnerability.

Vulnerability and Intended Destination

One key finding from the aforementioned 2019 MMC study on the Determinants of Detention in Libya suggested that a respondent’s intended destination was a predictor of vulnerability to detention. In the new study, this was expanded upon to measure the impact of destination on the full range of protection abuses under examination. The findings suggest that those who intended to move to Europe more often reported experiencing a protection incident as compared to their peers who intended to stay in Libya or migrate to a third non-European country. Results from West Africa also suggest that refugees and migrants on the move in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger who intend to reach Europe were more likely to report being robbed along the journey, and those with an intended destination of Europe were more likely to report physical abuse and kidnapping as compared to those with other destinations in North Africa. This may suggest that those intending on moving to Europe are linked to smuggling networks and/or moving along routes which put them at greater risk.


The two reports on vulnerability to protection incidents reveal some key trends across both regions, including the particular vulnerability of women to sexual violence, the potential risk related to the use of smugglers, and the role that intended destinations as well as origin countries play in refugee and migrant vulnerability across West and North Africa. More specifically, these studies extend our understanding of the concept of refugee and  migrant vulnerability by seeking to isolate factors which could make people on the move more or less susceptible to experiencing protection incidents and determining the effects of each of these factors when confounding factors are held constant. Furthermore, in both reports, there are several cases in which the results of regression analysis diverged from descriptive statistics, demonstrating that while descriptive statistics are an important tool in the analysis of humanitarian data, they may not always tell the full story. Therefore, these studies make an important contribution to existing work on ways to analyse the vulnerability of people on the move by developing better tools for the analysis of protection and risk mitigation for all people on the move.

Access the two reports here: