Irina Todorova, the EU Specialist in the field of counter-trafficking for International Organization for Migration (OIM), alerts that nobody is guaranteed to not become a victim of trafficking of human beings in the European Union.
“Freedom is the possibility of being and not the obligation to be”. This is one of René Magritte`s quotes – the great surrealist Belgian artist – that you can read if you visit the artist`s Museum in the center of the capital of Europe, Brussels.
According to Eurostat, 15.846 victims of Trafficking of Human Being (THB) were registered in the 28 EU Member States over the years 2010-2012. However, in 2010, a report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that over 140,000 persons were victims just in the field of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the EU.
This means that in an area where there is supposed to be freedom, respect for human rights and security, thousands of people are suffering from the inability to be what they want to be. The traffickers and the people who allow this crime to occur, are obligating the victims to be what they do not want: prostitute, exploited worker, the one-kidney bearer, beggar…
Unlike Magrittes`s works, trafficking of human beings in Europe is not a surrealist picture: it is real.
Trafficking of Human Being in the EU. The truth behind the official numbers
“There are the so-called “dark figures”, a number of people who are actually potentially trafficked or are at risk of being exploited. These numbers are actually much higher than those identified as trafficking victims””, explains Amy Weatherburn, PhD Researcher. Indeed, that`s what the EU Commission has recognized. Weatherburn provided research assistance on the EU Funded, TRACE Project, which aimed to support stakeholders in combating and disrupting human trafficking.
Otherwise, she alerts that statistics provide data with estimations. “The number in term of persecutions are quite low [4.079 prosecutions according to the European Commission between 2013-2014] compared to the number of registered victims [15 846 identified and presumed victims]”. Weatherburn also explains that this situation can be due to the fact that there are other ways of dealing with this phenomenon rather than adopting a criminal justice focus.
“It might be that a trafficked person doesn’t want to go through the trial process and in relation to labour exploitation, some victims just want to receive the money that is owed to them and this could be granted via a civil law process, through an employment trial”. Therefore, the criminal activity data does not reflect immediately the size of the issue in the EU – which is in most probability much higher.
Otherwise, what is beyond doubt that, astonishingly and according to research proof, Europe is the biggest area in the world where human traffickin is taking place and remains as one of the most profitable criminal businesses in the continent.
What is involved when we talk about THB?
It is very often that people confuse trafficking with smuggling but there are some main key differences. “Trafficking is the crime against the person and the individual. Meanwhile, smuggling is the crime against the state because it involves facilitating the illegal border crossing”, says Irina Todorova.
Unlike smuggling, when a smuggled person arrives at the planned destination, he or she is set free. Todorova explains that in trafficking, there is a chain of events: “Victims are coerced, put under pressure or threatened that something could happen to their family in order to submit or to control them”.
Another common trick in trafficking is the existence of a debt bondage. Victims cannot escape from their trafficker because they have to pay them back. “Debt bondage is a very serious means of control”, she states. It should also be noted that the ultimate goal of trafficking is the exploitation of a person which can involve sexual and labor exploitation to domestic service, begging, forced marriages or forced organ removal.
Who are the targeted victims?
The common public could view trafficking as just a problem that takes place around borders and migration. It could be true when we talk about smuggling, but this is not just the case for THB. Indeed, according to with the latest Europol report, the majority of THB victims (71%) registered were EU citizens.
“There was a certain point of expectation that people – especially those who live in a very developed country or in democracies – are aware of the welfare and their rights”, says Todorova. However, she pointed another factor linked to trafficking: hopelessness.
During her experience, Todorova has witnessed that no one is guaranteed safety from being a victim of trafficking. “It does not just happen to people who are living in poverty. Unexpectedly, you can face some urgent needs to be resolved and it´s during these moments of despair that these “nice people” all of a sudden offer you help”, she says. That is the hot point that can change your entire life without your awareness.
However, on the other hand, José Antonio Moreno Díaz, legal Advisor on Immigration, Asylum and Integration Issues in the European Economic and Social Committee, explains how criminal groups used to look for socially excluded people.
“Coincidentally, the majority of the nationalities came from those countries within the 28 with the highest social inequality indicators or, in the case of Romania, with the lowest salaries in the EU”, he says. Apart from this country, Europol reports that the main EU origin countries are Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland.
On the other hand, in the recent years, the immigration crisis has had a strong impact on the risk of trafficking and exploitation among children and youth on the move through the Mediterranean Sea.
There are particular concerns there are about the case of Nigerian girls and women exploited for sexual purposes. Indeed, IOM estimates that about 80% of that those arriving by sea in 2016 werelikely to fall into trafficking networks in Italy or in other countries of the European Union.
The most common activities around us: sexual and labour exploitation
Among the criminal activities that THB can include, those most common are sexual exploitation – with a 67% of registered victims (80% of registered victims were female )- and forced labour – with 21% of reported cases – in the EU. ‘This data only shows a proportional part of the true reality.
About this issue, Moreno Díaz, personally thinks that as long as there are clients in the EU, there will be traffickers. Thus, the persecution of the consumers it is very relevant in order to prevent this crime.
“Each weekend, he is looking forward to new human flesh that he is going to enjoy with impunity. So, the consumer promotes that this diabolical market, where women are degraded as a mere physical and aesthetic objects, keep going on.”
Also, he points out that its legalization in some European countries such as the Netherlands provokes an increase in the supply. “If we provide a legal framework, we are normalizing a practice that is not because any victim decides voluntarily to be a prostitute, at least there is always a socio-economic factor behind it”.
To reinforce Diaz’s argument, Dr. Weatherburn points out that a way to fight against it can be found in a better consumer awareness in order to ensure that we are buying products where the supply has been slavery-free.
“People often want food or products for a very small price which is a part of the globalization and capitalist world we live in. But, we have to remember that if something is going to be reduced at the end, the pressure of the cost of producing in the first-place is going to push the workers”, she says. Then, indirectly, we can promote this exploitation because forced labor is likely to take place at some stage of the production.
Pass the message
For both cases of exploitation, Moreno Díaz sets that EECS ask for the training and qualifications of labor inspectors and the training and awareness of the police. Todorova explains that “often national legislations do not allow labor inspectors to go and show up anywhere. Instead, they have to ask for permission and very often if it is approved in 48 to 76 hours, the whole operation can disappear”.
Then, the best practices could be that labors inspectors can have investigative powers to immediately document the case, take actions and extract people at the same time that they collaborate very closely with the police.
Relating to sexual exploitation, Moreno Díaz noticed in some cases the lack of qualifications and awareness in the police when they dismantle a criminal group related to sexual exploitation. “They get into the brothels and arrest the prostitutes. But, they can be victims of trafficking”.
Precisely, these situations are what discourages victims to ask for help. “Victims usually are afraid about being arrested or deported because that is what traffickers have blackmailed them with. From their perspective, no one is going to help them because it was their choice. They are blamed for their situation. Thus, they do not usually trust the police” explains Todorova.
For these reasons, an aware police force that works closely with experts can identify some indicators of trafficking can also be a very important measure. Todorova also tells that the OMI work in this field has demonstrated that “when they manage to assist one, two or a group of victims, they already talk to each other. They find the way to pass the message: `Don’t be afraid, call and they will help you´”.
Experts insist that we have a collective responsibility to raise awareness. A public civil society with open eyes can also help to detect where the crime is happening. “When you are not aware you do not see suspicious things”, Todorova says.
Cooperation between countries
Trafficking is a criminal activity deeply related to crossing borders. Most of the victims are recruited in their home country and they travel looking for that promised offer that they never find once they arrive.
Due to this fact, a strong collaboration between the European States could be a big help to face THB. “If the cooperation is strong criminal’s networks will be careful and they will not try to do it. However, when the cooperation is weaker they are more likely to try it”, says Todorova.
Sally Beeckman, is the coordinator of the PAG-ASA Legal Unit, an NGO based in Brussels and focused on providing humanitarian assistance to victims and cooperating in the combat against exploitation networks. During her work, Beeckman has identified that this lack of collaboration among the countries makes it sometimes impossible to plan any kind of assistance.
“Some victims have called us with concerns regarding a case of trafficking that takes place in Italy for example. But the crime of trafficking has to have taken place in Belgium to make the prosecution of the crime here possible. If this is not the case, we cannot help. We have to reorient them and maybe put in in contact with the system that exists or the NGOs that exist in Italy”, she explains.
However, as Sally says, often, victims do not want to go back to that country where they were exploited because there are afraid. “An ideal system would be that which makes it possible to help victims here in Belgium, even though, they have been trafficked in Italy”, Sally states.
Elena Valenciano, a member of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the EU Parliament, explains that this European institution and also the European Commission have been working on this for years, however, wider support from the Member States are still needed. “The EU is incapable of offering aid to this matter if there is a lack of will from the states to collaborate. We need more pressure from the national parliaments where the THB is not still on the political agenda”, she says.
Which is Europe`s responsibility?
Trafficking in Human Beings is happening and is happening within Europe, involving EU citizens and non-EU citizens, destroying people`s lives and kidnapping people`s hopes.
“EU cannot pretend to be a flagship of Human Rights and the representatives of respect for the ethnic, religious and social minorities while, at the same time, there are thousands of people suffering slavery and exploitation within our borders. This is not coherent, even less so, when this crime is against our values. Besides, in any case, keeping human beings in this terrible situation is intolerable”, states Valenciano.