Human trafficking, referred to as one of the “three global evils,” under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is a $US150 billion industry. Trafficking for sexual exploitation of women and girls makes up two thirds of that total, or around $US99 billion. UNODC 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons identified more than 500 different trafficking flows in 2012-2014 and 137 different citizenships of identified victims of trafficking in Western and Southern Europe. The report also specifically identified migration and conflict as two of the main drivers for the increase of human trafficking globally, which has become quite prevalent within the European Union (EU) with the ongoing refugee crisis.
The EU has been dealing with a migrant crisis since 2014 that significantly intensified during 2015 and has remained a top priority for the regional union. Refugees and migrants entering the EU predominately originate from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Afghanistan affected by civil conflict, and those in Northern Africa affected by severe economic turmoil. By the end of 2015, 65 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, an increase of 6 million from the previous 12 months. Although migration and trafficking are not explicitly correlated, it is the increased vulnerability among migrants that makes them increasingly vulnerable to traffickers.
This vulnerability has disproportionably affected children and unaccompanied minors traveling to the EU. In 2015, 96 000 children entered the EU unaccompanied and at least 10 000 have dropped off the radar. Children have become the preferred target for traffickers since they are easy to recruit and quick to replace. Trafficked children between six months and ten years of age are bought and sold for sums of money ranging from 4000 – 8000 euros but as much as 40,000 euros have been reported in some cases. As well, according to one Guardian report, more than 80 percent of all Nigerian women and girls travelling from Libya to Italy have been trafficked across Europe. Therefore, at trafficking rates such as these, one must beg the question of what is being done globally to combat this escalating trend?
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime falls under the jurisdiction of the UNODC and contains three main protocols: trafficking in persons, the smuggling of migrants, and the trade of illicit firearms and their components. To date, this convention has 158-member state signatories. When the Convention was created in 2000, it was a significant step to acknowledge the need to combat these three critical transnational crimes and work together globally to stop them. Within this convention, The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children was put into effect as a global legally binding instrument in 2003. This Protocol was used to create a universal definition of ‘trafficked persons’ so as to converge national approaches in the prosecution of traffickers and support international strategies for its prevention.
‘Trafficking in persons’ under this protocol is defined as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring or harbouring persons by means of coercion, deception, or abuse of vulnerabilities for the purpose of exploitation. Issues arise from this definition since some consider it too broad to effectively be able to prosecute individuals for trafficking, especially since laws on the prosecution of traffickers come from national legislation, which for the most part was created in the last eight to ten years. Furthermore, this legislation has not effectively been transferred over to an efficient criminal justice system. For most countries, the number of individuals processed for crimes of trafficking is generally higher than the number of prosecutions, which in turn is higher than the number of convictions. This indicates on average that for each person convicted, about four persons were investigated and five victims were identified; therefore, the conviction rates do not actually represent the prevalence and extent of the human trafficking problem.
UNODC has created a number of initiatives to counteract these low conviction rates of traffickers. The Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal is a UNODC information dissemination platform where states can officially document instances of trafficking and share legislation related to the trafficking protocol. The main goal of this initiative is to increase the visibility of successful prosecution in trafficking and promote the awareness of the realties of the crime. Similarly, the UNODC has implemented the Global Action against Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants (GLO.ACT) in partnership with the EU, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and UNICEF. This four year joint initiative (2015-2019) aims to combat trafficking through six main objectives including legislative assistance, policy development, and through protection and assistance for victims of trafficking; but are these initiatives enough?
The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT) is a UN body that works to improve the coordination of anti-trafficking strategies among UN agencies to facilitate a holistic approach to combat this transnational issue. They release publications and strategies to create counter-trafficking in persons (counter-TIP) policies that are gender and age-sensitive and grounded in a human-rights approach. ICAT is uniquely positioned to create recommendations on future counter-TIP programmes and critique those strategies that fail to create a holistic approach, such as those being implemented in the EU that fail to take into account the age and race of the children being trafficked.
Currently, counter-TIP policies rely on three main assumptions that are not backed by rigorous data. For example, there is no data to support that increasingly people’s awareness of TIP will lead to a reduction in risky behavior, especially considering that refugees leaving conflict zones have no other choice but to migrant. Furthermore, the assumption that combating TIP in one region or among one criminal group will reduce the overall rate is false, since a majority of the time it displaces the activity to a different location. Lastly, the UNODC among others believes that the knowledge and skills learned in training workshops will translate directly to effective protocols. However this assumption is not supported by evidence-based research.
Critiques such as those mentioned above are based on the fact that current counter-TIP policies tend to be so broad that there is no discussion on a systemic way to promote change. The 4-Ps of prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnership in counter-TIP strategies are not working. Instead of helping create a holistic counter-trafficking approach, the focus on the 4-Ps have tended to created silos. Therefore, what is needed is a multi-faceted approach targeting both the root cause of trafficking (usually social) and the prosecution and security aspects through effective transnational border control.
Rates of migration are unlikely to slow anytime soon. Therefore, international and domestic bodies must create effective strategies to prevent trafficking of vulnerable persons, especially children, as we see these trends continue to rise. 2,375 children were registered as trafficked in 2013-14, a number too high and yet extremely conservative of the likely real numbers of trafficked children. Moving forward, national legislation and counter-TIP strategies must converge to create an international system of easy communication and coordination to protect those most vulnerable to trafficking, and effectively prosecute those committing this crime.
About the Author
Bojana Radan is a second year Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs with a strong interest in global health, climate sustainability, gender equality and good governance. Bojana has worked within civil society in South East Asia advocating for youth rights within HIV development, and is the co-editor-in-chief of the Munk School student digital news publication, Global Conversations. She is a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Recipient and a four-time Academic All-Canadian scholar. Bojana holds an Hon. Bachelor’s in Science in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology from the University of Toronto.