Modern Day Slavery: The Shapeshifting Reality of Human Trafficking

27 May 2015

This week's revelations have once again opened a window to the harrowing world of human trafficking. Images of makeshift camps in the thick jungle of Malaysia and into Thailand show the squalid and inhumane conditions in which victims of this highly organised crime were made to live and work against their will. The discovery of 139 suspected mass graves, containing the decomposing bodies of potentially hundreds of recently deceased people, show that the cost of this trade for many is their life.

In September last year, I did a joint event with the Police and Crime Commissioners in the North East on modern slavery and trafficking - bringing together police, other public agencies and non-governmental actors in developing our regional strategy. Some of the experiences relayed in the course of the seminar were shocking.

The trafficking of human beings is a grave violation of human rights. Indeed, it is the only form of organised crime that is expressly prohibited in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 5 para. 3). It is a highly lucrative criminal activity, second only to the international drugs trade, with estimated profits of up to USD$31.6 billion per year, of which 49% (USD$15.5 billion) is generated in industrialised economies.

Numbers are notoriously difficult. The estimated number of people trafficked to or within the EU amounts to several hundred thousand per year. In 2010, 9,528 identified or presumed victims were recorded, of whom 62% had been sexually exploited, 25% subjected to forced labour and 14% forced to carry out other activities including begging and criminal activities. In 2012, the International Labour Organisation estimated that 880,000 people were subject to forced labour in the EU's then 27 Member States.

Most Europeans would agree with the first paragraph of the EU's current strategy paper on human trafficking, which describes this hidden, worldwide industry as the "slavery of the modern age." But what they may not know is that the majority (65%) of those trafficked in the EU these days are actually European citizens.

People are trafficked for the purpose of sexual and labour exploitation or the removal of organs. Women and children are particularly affected, representing 80 % of registered victims of trafficking and 98 % of victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation. Children are also exploited for begging or illegal activities, such as petty theft.

Combating human trafficking requires a comprehensive, coordinated and multidisciplinary approach that unites Member States, third countries and organisations dedicated to the eradication of this trade and the protection of its victims. It must begin from a gender and human rights perspective, placing the victim at the centre of legislative action and with recognition of the particular vulnerability of children.

It is this approach that has laid the foundations for various interlocking mechanisms introduced at European Commission level, designed to provide dedicated European bodies, Member States and civil society actors with the information and guidance required to effectively combat this trade.

The first EU Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings was adopted by Member States in 2005.

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beingscame into force in 2008 and has been ratified by 43 states. It aims to prevent trafficking in human beings, protect victims of trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and promote co-ordination of national actions and international co-operation.

The European Court of Human Rights made an historic first judgement against Cyprus and Russia in the Rantsev Case (2010), which confirmed the positive obligation on states to adopt appropriate and effective legal and administrative frameworks, to take protective measures, and to investigate trafficking where it has already occurred.

In this context, the 2011 EU Directive on trafficking in human beings was a significant step in the right direction.

An EU Anti-Trafficking Day has been observed on 18 October every year since 2007.

Labour market legislation and laws regarding migrant workers in the EU also have a crucial role to play in ensuring that contractors, subcontractors and job recruitment agencies are prevented from hiring cheap or forced labour, signified in the reference made to the Employers Sanctions Directive in the Commission's 2011 Directive. It is hoped that the work currently being undertaken by the tripartite European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) will provide a stimulus for more targeted action around labour trafficking and bonded labour in Europe.

However, EU legislation provides only for the minimum standards required in fighting human trafficking; Member States can and should go beyond these standards as and when it is deemed appropriate.

Recent discoveries show that there is much left to do, and that we cannot be content to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Trafficking is a highly organised crime, made up of a complex web of gangs, enterprises, powerful individuals and, in many cases, official state authorities. The huge and ever-growing profits to be generated by exploiting individuals for labour and sexual services mean that traffickers will not by shied easily. Investigations in the UK have shown how quick such gangs are to adapt and change as new legislation is implemented and as the fight against their illicit trade becomes more sophisticated.

Catching up with these shape-shifting forms of criminal activity is perhaps an impossible task, but we must at least try. At a very minimum, it requires that we do not let up the pace, nor go back on the high standards for action and monitoring that have already been set by the European Union.

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