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Human trafficking: a new European impetus to the fight against it

Article 3 of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children defines trafficking in human beings as: “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation for prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Human trafficking has acquired a new dimension in the context of globalisation and most of the victims in Europe are women and girls that come from and outside Europe, with sexual exploitation being the main reason. On Thursday 12 May, at the Strasbourg Plenary Session, MEPs assessed the current European legislation to fight against human trafficking and to protect its victims, coming up with new suggestions and improvements. Among the other propositions, Catherine BEARDER report on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings was taken into consideration and the resulting resolution on the Implementation of the Directive 2011/36/EU of 5 April 2011 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims from a gender perspective (2015/2118(INI)) adopted.

Human trafficking is considered a serious crime and a flagrant violation of human rights as recognised by the international community. Even if it is not a new phenomenon, in recent years the increasing mobility all around Europe and the development of new technologies have contributed to the rise of human trafficking, which generally involves low risks and brings high profit to traffickers. Forced labour, sexual exploitation, forced begging, the selling of children and forced marriage are the main purposes of human trafficking. In the EU, these forms of exploitation happen largely within its borders: 65% of victims are EU citizens, as reported by Eurostat, mostly from eastern and central Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria. However, Western Europe is also the destination for victims from Africa, Asia and South America.

In 2012, according to the International Labour Office, almost 21 million persons globally, including 11.4 million women and girls, were trapped in the so-called modern-day slavery. At the global level, 70% of victims are represented by women and girls and in the EU, as presented by Eurostat, the situation is even worse where the proportion of “registered or presumed” female victims are around 80% for the period 2010-2012. In effect, because of their vulnerability and the demand for sexual services the majority of victims of human trafficking are women and girls.

Sexual exploitation is the main scope of human trafficking at the global and European level where women and girls are generally targeted victims. This happens because there is a real and considerable demand for sexual services in Europe from which traffickers can profit and not just because women victims are vulnerable. Tackling this demand requires addressing prostitution; around 1 million women seemed to be engaged in transactional sex in Europe, as presented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Report.

This kind of sexual exploitation can take on different forms: ones that are more visible (such as in the situation of street prostitution) but primarily in a clandestine way (such as in brothels, private houses, strip clubs and massage parlours). Traffickers to prevent victims from escaping and control them often use violence, coercion, drugs and alcohol. However, to reduce demand for services of trafficked people, EU Member States have adopted three different legal approaches to prostitution: criminalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation. Each one clearly present limits and offer solutions to this phenomenon at different levels.

Many women are also victims of forced labour and subjected to psychological and physical violence. At the global level 35% of victims of forced labour are women against 27% in the EU for the period 2010-2012. Even if it is primarily men who do forced labour in the agricultural, construction or manufacturing sectors, women and girls are exploited for the purpose of domestic servitude. These victims often live in inhumane conditions, working for long hours for no salary, suffering physical and psychological violence, abuse, punishment and humiliation. As domestic work is often hidden and part of the informal economy, it is extremely hard to detect it to punish those responsible.

Data on human trafficking tends to demonstrate that human trafficking has a clear gender dimension, as women and men are not trafficked in the same way or for the same purpose. Arguably, the trafficking cycle is highly gendered from the root causes that make women and girls more vulnerable. These root causes can be distinguished in « push and pull » factors. Push factors includes poverty, gender inequality, unemployment, lack of social security and conflicts. Pull factors, on the contrary, are represented by mere promises of better living condition, a stable employment and demand for cheap and unskilled labour. All these factors create an exploitation chain from which it is very difficult to escape.

The recruitment of victims is an important step of the trafficking process. Coercion, force and deception are the mainly channels of recruitment through which traffickers operate exploiting the poor economic situation of women. Trust in traffickers is another key element. Offering a new life, they are able to conquer victims and even their family members. An important role is also played by internet and new technology, as most criminal activities have gone online. Social media, websites and internet are in fact the first channel of recruitment of victims, to the point that Europol qualified these practices “cyber slavery”.

Migrant smuggling, especially during the current “refugee and migrant crisis”, has been related to human trafficking as one of the main channel of recruitment. In fact, mass migration has increased people’s risk of ending up as victims of trafficking. Cumbersome and complex migration procedures and lack of legal migration opportunities force people to use facilitators or intermediaries; this will result, in most cases, in exploitation phenomena and abuses. Women and children are especially likely to become victims of traffickers and smugglers.

From a juridical point of view, the EU and the international community have adopted key instruments to tackle trafficking in human beings. In 2000, the UN Trafficking Protocol was ratified as part of the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and it represents a milestone in redefining the problem of human trafficking. Indeed, before this Protocol, the concept of trafficking in persons was only equated with the exploitation for commercial sex. On the contrary, from 2000, the scope of trafficking was extended to various non-sexual forms of exploitation, such as the aforementioned forced labour. However, it still took a crime-based approach towards trafficking. This has only changed in recent years when the focus was shifted towards victims’ human rights. The 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings is an example, as it places the victims’ human rights at its heart demanding States to offer a satisfactory protection and services to victims.

At the European level, the main legislative instrument for fighting trafficking in human beings is the Directive 2011/36/EU. Referring to the two international instrument above-mentioned, this directive adopts a more victims’ centred approach, addressing prevention and supporting a gender-specific focus without neglecting the prosecution of offenders. It recognises the different purposes for which women and man are trafficked and, thus, different needs and assistance required by men and women. This directive aims at tackling the demand for services of the victims of trafficking, particularly those engaged in sex industry, agriculture, tourism and construction. Moreover, Directive 2009/52/EC already tackles the demand for labour of trafficked persons at the EU level. It mainly focuses on sanctions and measures against employers who know that the worker is a victim of trafficking in human beings.

Concerning the protection of victims, according to EU law, victims of this kind of trafficking possess a number of rights, such as assistance, medical care, labour rights, legal defence and access to justice. Directive 2012/29/EU affirms that Member States have to ensure that victims of crimes receive appropriate support, protection and information. Furthermore, concerning victims of trafficking from third country, Directive 2004/81/EC defines standards for granting residence permits to these victims cooperating with the competent authority.

The issue of trafficking in human beings is basically a task primarily down to the Member States. However, the European Commission, with a view to creating a more comprehensive EU anti-trafficking policy, introduced the role of an EU anti-trafficking coordinator, currently held by Myria VASSILIADOU. Her mainly duty is to improve coordination and coherence among EU institutions, EU agencies, Member States and international actors and, to develop existing and new policies to address trafficking in human beings. The role of EU agencies is also important, as they contribute to the fight against human trafficking according to their area of competence: from gathering intelligence and facilitating the prosecution of traffickers, to coordinating EU countries’ effort to support victims and prevent victimisation. Among the others, seven agencies are directly involved: Europol, Eurojust, CEPOL, EASO, EIGE, FRA and Frontex. Furthermore, the European Commission has adopted a strategy for the 2012-2016 period (EU Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings) providing standards and guidelines on how to implement and put into practice Directive 2011/36/EU, even if, without achieving a very great deal.

The European Parliament (EP) is another institution that played and still plays an active role in developing anti-trafficking policies at the EU level. Referring to Directive 2011/36/EU, in June 2015, the EP adopted a Resolution on EU Strategy for equality between women and men, calling on Member States to fully implement this directive. Moreover, the European Commission was requested (in vain) to evaluate and monitor its implementation in order to adopt a new strategy against human trafficking as the current one expires in 2016.

Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), through its deputy Catherine BEARDER (ALDE, UK), proposed an own-initiative report on the implementation of Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking of human beings and protecting its victims from a gender-perspective. Drawn up in close cooperation with the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), the text points out that EU legislation to protect victims of trafficking has not being properly enforced and call Member States and the European Commission to action. “EU-wide measures to tackle this vile trade must be fully implemented by national governments, including the proper collection of statistics and identifications of victims to give us a clearer view of the real picture” said the rapporteur. The resolution, approved during the last Plenary session in Strasbourg by 391 votes to 43, with 53 abstentions, also stresses that the European Commission has failed to keep to the timetable of assessment report required by the directive.

Directive 2011/36/EU was due to be transposed into Member States’ national laws by 6th April 2013 and the report underlines that, currently, all Member States, except one, have notified the Commission of the transposition of this directive into national law. The EP asks Member States to speed up the correct and full enforcement of the directive. MEPs put the focus on the gender dimension of trafficking in human beings emphasizing that prevention, support and assistance measures must be gender-specific.

In particular, MEPs stress the need for a new approach to trafficking in human beings based on four key issues:

  1. Prevention: MEPs call on Member States’ preventive actions such as information and awareness campaigns, educational activities in schools to promote gender equality and gender-based violence but they also stress that it is important to create safe legal migration channels for women and children;
  2. Criminal prosecution: MEPs call on Member States to combat impunity, criminalise trafficking, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and that sanctions are strengthened intensifying their investigations and persecutions:
  3. Victim protection: MEPs call on the EU to pay attention to new forms of exploitation such as trafficking in new-born children and reproductive exploitation. Gender-specific measures to assist and support victims and their protection are fundamental. According to MEPs, victims do not have enough information to have access directly to services. Victims need specialised services including access to a safe accommodation (in the short or long term), translators and interpreters, rehabilitation programs, medical care and psychological support.
  4. Multi-level partnership: MEPs call on Member States to increase cross-border collaboration and cooperation with the relevant EU agencies. In this context, they call on EU agencies (Europol, Frontex, FRA, EASO etc.) to develop a sustained programme of improving gender balance in decision-making relevant to trafficking.

Therefore, the resolution asks the Commission to ensure Member States compliance with Directive 2011/36/EU and to develop guidelines based on best practices to develop and mainstream gender expertise into the activities of law enforcement authorities across the EU. It also notes that the current EU Strategy towards the eradication of trafficking in human beings ends in 2016 and calls on the Commission to evaluate this strategy and to introduce a new one that follows a human-rights-based approach, includes a clear gender dimension and, contains concrete actions in this regard. This strategy should address prevention and discourage the demand that fosters all forms of trafficking.

Member States, for their part, are asked to take some measures, including put in place some hotlines to help victims, grant legal assistance not only in criminal proceedings but also in civil or migration and asylum procedures and, offer psychological and medical support. The resolution calls on Members States to collect more detailed and up-to-date data by compiling reliable statistical information gathered from all the main actors involved, by ensuring that the data is homogeneous and disaggregated by gender, age, type of exploitation, country of origin and destination, and, by including internally trafficked people to better identify potential victims and prevent crime. EU countries should also increase data sharing in order to better assess the gender dimension and recent trends in trafficking in human beings and combat it more effectively.

As the rapporteur, Catherine BEARDER, underlines “we made huge progress five years ago when we came in with the directive on human trafficking. But still we are not getting the data; we are not as joined up”. Another time it seems that we got something, the EU have its legislation against human trafficking but it is just on paper. It is necessary to going more in practice now and this resolution should give renewed impetus to the work on the anti-trafficking directive.

Adele Cornaglia


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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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