EU countries must do more to address human trafficking

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Myria Vassiliadou
Myria Vassiliadou

EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator

Myria Vassiliadou is the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator

Trafficking in human beings, also known as THB, is the selling and buying, like commodities, of women and men, girls and boys, with the purpose of exploiting them.

It is a grave violation of fundamental rights. It also an extremely pernicious and highly lucrative form of transnational organised crime. And it is prohibited by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and defined by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as a particularly serious form of organised crime.

We know that in the EU the statistical data available does not capture the full prevalence of the phenomenon. But the EU’s data does indicate clear trends, and these are consistent with data from international organisations and other bodies. According to the EU’s First Report in 2016 on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings, 15,846 victims of THB were registered between 2013 and 2014, with two-thirds being EU citizens. Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is still by far the most highly reported form of trafficking in the EU (67% of registered victims), with 95% of the victims being women and girls. This is followed by trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation (21%) and trafficking for other forms of exploitation (12%), including for the purpose of criminal activities, forced begging and organ removal.

We increasingly hear that the current migration and refugee crisis has been exploited by criminal networks involved in trafficking in human beings. As we see from the data, trafficking in human beings is not a migration-related phenomenon per se. Nevertheless, the First progress report highlighted, among other things, that traffickers are taking advantage of the migration routes to bring their victims to the EU, targeting the most vulnerable groups, in particular women and children.

No one country alone can address such challenges; cross-border crimes are becoming increasingly more interlinked, and only trans-border cooperation can address such transnational threats

According to the International Office of Migration (IOM), the first six months of 2017 confirm the concerning trend of 2014-2016 – a sharp estimated increase of 600% in the number of potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation arriving to Italy through the Central Mediterranean route. Nigeria remains the main non-EU country of origin, and the IOM estimates that around 80% of the 11,009 Nigerian women and girls who arrived in Italy in 2016 are victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

This heinous crime is very clearly driven by huge profits for traffickers and the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation. Although a serious form of crime, it remains low-risk and high-profit for the perpetrators, for the exploiters and for the abusers. Conducting investigations and prosecutions on such complex crimes is a very challenging task indeed, which is reflected in the EU’s low rate of convictions and prosecutions. No one country alone can address such challenges; cross-border crimes are becoming increasingly more interlinked, and only trans-border cooperation can address such transnational threats.

The EU has put in place a comprehensive, gender-specific and victim-centred legal and policy framework to address THB. The EU Anti-trafficking Directive establishes robust provisions on victim protection, assistance and support, but also on prevention and prosecution of the crime. The 2012-2016 EU Strategy has provided a coherent basis and direction for EU policy in the area of trafficking in human beings. To follow up the Commission is in the process of developing a post-2016 policy framework to guide us in the coming years.

The EU framework stresses that victims hold certain rights. They must not only be informed of these rights but must also have access to them and the possibility to realise them. We must remember that behind every victim there is a perpetrator, a profit-maker, a criminal, an abuser and a user of the victim’s ‘services’. We need to follow the money made by these perpetrators, as there is no trafficking without profits. Europol estimates the global annual profit of trafficking in human beings to be €29.4bn; out of this, €23.5bn are profits from sexual exploitation in the EU and developed economies and €3.5bn profits from labour exploitation globally. Trafficking in human beings brings in money for the traffickers and money for illegal sectors. But it also brings in money for legal sectors engaged in illegal business, and money for legal sectors engaged in legal business. It creates a cycle of profits that also fuels demand.

We must remember that behind every victim there is a perpetrator, a profit-maker, a criminal, an abuser and a user of the victim’s ‘services’

We need to ensure that those who profit from the crime and exploit the victims are punished accordingly. We cannot afford to contribute to a culture of impunity. We need to ask very hard questions to guide our policy and work towards the eradication of trafficking. Who profits from the exploitation? What are we doing to ensure that we sufficiently target the criminals, the users and the profit-makers? And crucially, how do these astronomical profits fuel the demand for the use of victims’ services?

Today in many member states it is not illegal to buy or use the ‘services’ of victims of trafficking, even with the knowledge that a person is a victim. We can buy goods that we have reason to believe have been produced by victims of trafficking and not be punished for it. We can buy sexual ‘services’ from people who have been trafficked and not be punished. Our response must be to ensure that traffickers and those who profit from the exploitation of victims are brought to justice. We need to reduce the demand that fuels trafficking for all forms of exploitation. In fact, the EU Anti-trafficking Directive includes a legal obligation to discourage and reduce the demand for all forms of exploitation and to raise awareness on the phenomenon. The Directive also asks member states to, at the very least, consider making it a crime to use the ‘services’ of victims of trafficking, with the knowledge that the person is a victim.

The Commission is proactively monitoring the transposition of the Directive to ensure full compliance and has recently issued two reports to this effect: the Transposition Report on the extent to which EU member states comply with the Directive, and the Users Report assessing the impact of national laws criminalising the those who use the ‘services’ of victims of trafficking. The EU institutions have done what they had to do and continue to do so: it is now time for the EU member states to step up their efforts in order to fully and effectively implement the Directive, and decrease the demand that fuels human trafficking.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.

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