Davor Raus: Internet, ICT come into battle with human trafficking

Criminals are very technologically advanced in hiding their illegal income

Photo: Alexandar Petrov

ICT by itself is a positive thing and development. But as in every period in human history, these instruments - tools that are by themselves, per se, useful - can be misused, says Davor Raus from UNODC in an interview to Europost.

Mr Raus, you participated a few days ago in a Sofia workshop on better use of internet-based technologies in the fight against trafficking in human beings. What were the results?

The workshop, organised by UNOCD and Bulgaria's National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, produced encouraging results. This type of forum helps in the first place to raise the awareness about current trends, modus operandi, and good practices as well as challenges that professionals, from the government sector but also from the private sector, from the NGO sector, from academia, are facing with this phenomenon. It is also the place to exchange knowledge among them, among ourselves, basically to learn from each other and establish personal and professional connections for future cooperation. It was a very useful technical meeting.

Traffickers themselves skilfully use social networks to attract their future victims. How can authorities struggling with this phenomenon oppose them?

This workshop proves that it is possible to oppose them with a bit of creativity, by using open source intelligence such as Google maps, Facebook, and GPS. We were presented with very interesting examples of how professionals not only from the criminal justice but also the wider community that was present at this workshop are dealing with internet-based technology. So, creativity was one of the issues highlighted, in addition to cross-border cooperation between the professionals who are involved in combating human trafficking facilitated by the abuse of information communication technologies (ICT). Another tool is multi-stakeholder cooperation, because the criminal justice institutions, and that was proven at the workshop, can strongly benefit from the experiences and the infrastructure and knowledge provided by the private sector and academia.

Are internet operators, which are private companies, ready to cooperate effectively with bodies fighting human trafficking? What are the results so far?

We also heard about examples of cooperation with the private sector, not only with internet service providers but also with money transfer agents like Western Union, which was present here, and Airbnb. The private sector is very motivated to work and share the information they have. The important thing is that they care about their clients', their customers' safety and security, and they are also very interested to keep the internet safe as well as to protect their own image and credibility. So, in principle, they are very much open and interested in cooperating.

How should the internet be used for prevention, which is the weakest link in anti-trafficking efforts?

Internet and the ICT technologies. This was highlighted a number of times during the workshop, ICT by itself is a positive thing and development. It is the technological advancement of modern age. But as in every period in human history, these instruments - tools that are by themselves, per se, useful - can be misused. And this is what we are witnessing today, and it will get even more (pronounced) as the digital society and interconnection between people becomes more spread and faster. Regarding prevention, we were introduced to a few campaigns on the internet for prevention (aimed at minors, the children, and safe use of the internet) that are showing results. Of course, in the trafficking context it is a bit more complex because the traffickers are also using social networks and other communication technologies to identify their victims, and by monitoring their behaviour online and on social networks, the perpetrators are trying in their own way to profile their victims. And that is why prevention on the internet is very important, as is raising the awareness of the general population, and in particular the high-risk groups - people who are vulnerable either because of their social or economic status, or being a minority, and so on - about the phenomenon and the modus operandi. Basically, how people can be aware and protect themselves, and how they can be cautious.

How can the internet be used to detect and block money from the trafficking business?

It is a very important and difficult issue. This is why we invited also our colleagues from Western Union. We also invited a representative for MoneyGram who could not come. But we had a Western Union representative who explained to us that there is a high turnover of suspicious transactions and that some of the recent studies on this issue show that trafficking in persons is a multi-billion business. And when it comes to the identification, seizure, freezing and confiscating of the assets, it is proven to be a very difficult process because the perpetrators are very skilled in hiding their illegal income. One of the examples given was the use of the so-called dark net and the virtual currency bitcoin. They are advanced and that is not something new, that criminals are very skilled and creative, and they run their work as a business, and they are very technologically advanced. So the response from the criminal justice sector and the wider society is most of the time one or more steps behind. Although there is awareness about their use of cryptocurrencies, it is very difficult to prevent. There are ways, some methods were shared at the workshop but, still, it is underground, it is person-to-person, P2P exchange, and that is very difficult to detect.

What is the situation with the forced labour phenomenon? Is there modern slavery in the EU and how to fight it?

Well, the term 'modern slavery' is currently used as an advocacy term to attract more attention from the wider public, while in principle modern-day slavery is predominantly human trafficking, so we are talking about human trafficking here. Forced labour as a phenomenon is increasingly keeping pace with sexual exploitation. In previous years, maybe a decade or so, around 70% and even more of the victims of human trafficking were for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Now it becomes more and more visible that labour exploitation is in some regions, mostly Asia and southeast Asia (OK, it is not the case in Europe yet, but it is global), more dominant than sexual exploitation, according to the recent UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Even in the European Union, the problem of labour exploitation exists, and the statistics about the EU are showing this. In her report, the EU anti-trafficking coordinator Ms Myria Vassiliadou presented figures that support this fact. Labour exploitation is keeping pace with sexual exploitation. With the economic turnover and the difficulties in the global economic trends, as well as the economic challenges in the EU this past year, that is where the labour exploitation blossoms.

In which parts of Europe are there cases of such slavery?

I think predominantly in Western Europe, but not only. For instance in Eastern Europe, particularly the victims exploited in Russia, also in the Mediterranean countries of the EU. It is not limited to them, it is widespread. That is the type of trafficking in persons which is more and more visible now, and the professionals who are dealing with it are more aware of it.

Is the lack of effective legislation, providing quick sentences for migrant smugglers and traffickers, in many countries, including EU members, still a problem?

The overall conclusion can be that legislation is in place and it is adequate for prosecution and adjudication, but the problem is in its effective implementation. That is where the challenges are coming from. There are many reasons for that and one of them is that trafficking in persons is not a simple crime. It is not like a theft where someone takes something that does not belong to them, which is straightforward. With trafficking in persons, it is more like criminalising a phenomenon that works on the vulnerability of the victims and on the readiness of traffickers to exploit that vulnerability and gain profit from it. The criminal justice practitioners from the law enforcement and judiciary are faced with many challenges and are trying to address the phenomenon. We could say that in the past decade or so there has been improvement. Also, it should be mentioned that the 2016 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons showed as well that the longer a country has had legislation on trafficking in persons, (the more) it is likely to expect that there will be more identification, prosecution and adjudication. There is a lot more still left to be done, and it is a complex issue that is one of the main weaknesses in the effective implementation of the legislation. The criminal justice procedure is relying the case sometimes solely on the statement of victims. And the victims of human trafficking are those who are mainly suffering a serious trauma. When the criminal justice system applies the standard rules of criminal law to the victim of human trafficking, it is faced with other difficulties of, for instance, the victim changing their statement. In the classical court case that is a reason to dismiss the statement, whereas in trafficking it shows the depth of trauma. That is where the criminal justice system is faced with challenges in addition to identifying and tracing illicit financial flows, and so on.

The UNODC has put the focus at the Sofia workshop on the situation in South Eastern Europe. How is the fight against human trafficking advancing in this region?

Of course there is still a lot to be done. At the same time, it seems obvious that there is willingness from the countries in the region to face the phenomenon and to address it. What is important is that southeast European countries are very much ready to cooperate with each other cross-border. One of the many examples is that there is an existing network of anti-human trafficking coordinators, the southeastern Europe national coordinators, who are very closely cooperating in addressing human trafficking in their specific countries and in the region. We hope that the results will come. We can say that, as I mentioned earlier, 10 or 15 years ago the phenomenon itself was not so clear, not only to the wider public but to the professionals too, and now, as it is becoming more and more something that is known, there is room for improvement and potential for results.

Close-up

Davor Raus is the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer of UNODC in Vienna. He has held a number of legal positions within UNODC and other international organisations, as well as in the Ministry of Justice of Serbia, over the past more than 15 years. These include Programme Coordinator for the Danish Refugee Council in Southeast Europe in building capacities of the civil society; Legal Advisor in the Ministry of Justice of Serbia coordinating legislative drafting working groups, bilateral negotiations and the cases of international judicial cooperation; Senior Legal Expert for GTZ Serbia; and Programme Coordinator for UNODC for Southeast Europe dealing with organised crime and illicit trafficking, terrorism, justice and integrity.

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