EU's main priority is to end impunity for human trafficking

There is no victim unless there is someone using their services

Photo: Photo: Alexander Petrov

I participated in the Sofia forum following the invitation of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, and I am very pleased to see the engagement of different stakeholders on this issue. The Bulgarian National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (NCCTHB) has been actively promoting cooperation with the Informal Network of National Anti-trafficking Coordinators from South-Eastern Europe (SEE) and its Secretariat.

Close-up: The EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Dr Myria Vassiliadou holds degrees in Sociology and Social Research and a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. She has also been a Research Fellow at the Solomon Asch Centre for Study of Ethno-political conflict, at the University of Pennsylvania. Ms Vassiliadou previously served as Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby, the largest network of women’s associations across the EU. She was a founding member of the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies and served as its Director for 7 years and Chair of the Board of Administration. For over a decade, Dr Vassiliadou worked as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nicosia. 

- Ms Vassiliadou, you were recently in Sofia for the discussion on combating human trafficking in SEE in the context of the Western Balkan countries' EU integration process. How will those nations meet the EU requirements in this very challenging area?
- I participated in the Sofia forum following the invitation of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, and I am very pleased to see the engagement of different stakeholders on this issue. The Bulgarian National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (NCCTHB) has been actively promoting cooperation with the Informal Network of National Anti-trafficking Coordinators from South-Eastern Europe (SEE) and its Secretariat. 
As you know, in February this year, the European Commission adopted a strategy for “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”, confirming the European future of the region as a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe. I will only speak here about the policy area under my mandate. Concerning trafficking in human beings a series of events take place to join our efforts, including the forum in Sofia. I would like to recall the signing of a declaration on combatting THB in SEE on 16 March 2018, as a result of the Brdo process Ministerial meeting, which is the second political expression of the strong commitment of the SEE countries to address THB. Further, the SEE Informal Network of National Anti-trafficking Coordinators will participate at the next meeting of the EU Network of National rapporteurs and/or Equivalent mechanisms of EU Member States, ensuring exchanges and dialogue.
The Western Balkans Strategy lays down that organised crime's foothold in the Western Balkans remains strong and stresses the importance that authorities must dismantle criminal networks and their economic bases. Enhanced strategic and operational cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans on security, including through relevant agencies, is pivotal. These are key dimensions in the new Communication on THB adopted in early December 2017 - disrupting the business model and untangling the trafficking chain, and enhancing coordination at the internal and external dimension with all relevant stakeholders. We want to see progress on this ground, based on the Western Balkans strategy and based on the Communication by the EC on THB. The number one priority for us, in simple terms, is to stop the culture of impunity. We have to stop the impunity for the perpetrators; for the traffickers; for those who make profit; the intermediaries; those who facilitate trafficking. But most of all we must stop the impunity of those who use the services of the victims. And it is essential that victims are identified and receive the assistance and support they are entitled to by law. For this there is need for well-functioning referral mechanisms at the national level, a coordination structure involving many services who can actually help victims, such as social, medical, psychological, child support, to name a few; and to have smooth transnational cooperation in place as trafficking goes beyond national borders.
- Has the current migration and refugee crisis fuelled an increase of THB in this region?
- This question needs to be nuanced. I don't agree with linking trafficking only to the migration crisis. It is true that the migration crisis makes people vulnerable to trafficking. But it is not the only factor why people end up becoming victims and I will come back on that. We should not forget that the majority of the victims of trafficking in the EU are EU victims identified by the Member States. EU-wide data tell us that two-thirds of the victims of trafficking in Europe are EU nationals. It is easy to blame the migration, but for 65% of the victims this is not true. 
- How is the EU Anti-trafficking Directive being implemented in EU members, and which are the main achievements in recent years?
- Trafficking is a serious human rights violation, and it is a form of organised crime, with a transnational dimension. We have a very good legal and policy framework in the EU, we have an excellent directive from 2011 that sets out standards and, of course, focuses on victims, prevention and prosecution and coordination. The Directive establishes minimum standards on the definition of criminal offences and sanctions in the area of trafficking in human beings. It adopts a clear human rights based approach; it is gender specific and child sensitive. The Directive also obliges Member States to set up National Rapporteurs or equivalent mechanisms to be responsible for monitoring implementation of anti-trafficking policy at the national level. It is a very good legislation because it does not just talk about the perpetrator, which is extremely important, but it also talks about the protection of the victims and the prevention of the crime. We now have a new Communication with the EU priorities for the coming years that focuses especially on prevention. In the context of the EU Policy Cycle for the years 2018-2021, THB is one of the EU priority crime areas, marking the direction Member States will act upon.
There are achievements, but as our studies and reports indicate, more can and must  be done. In the second half of this year, the Commission will present its Second Progress Report, based on the contributions from EU Member States and from the civil society.
- Which kind of trafficking (for sexual, labour or other forms of exploitation) remains the most common problem for the EU?
- This is clearly trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation within the EU as our report shows it. Sometimes, because we have fatigue from hearing about the same thing on and on and because it is so difficult to hear, some try not to talk about it. But instead of being tired of hearing it, we should address it. Maybe you and I are in different ways privileged, but not everybody is. When you have a female member of your family who is raped or forced against her will every day to provide sexual 'services', I cannot imagine what these people, these women and girls go through. Two-thirds of all victims are victims of trafficking of sexual exploitation, and almost all of them are women and girls. Then we have labour exploitation at about 21%, and then we have other forms. You may tell me as a journalist that this is not 100% correct, and I would agree with you, but it shows a very clear trend. Eurostat, Europol, the UNODC, everybody counting  these numbers, all indicate the same thing for the EU, so it must be the correct trend.
- Is prevention still the weakest point in anti-trafficking efforts?
- It is the weakest point while it should be the strongest. As I always say, if you have a young boy or a girl who are raped on a continuous basis, and then you and I write a very touching story, it is a necessary move, but it is already too late for that person. What we need to do is create awareness, train the frontline officials so that they know what they are dealing with. We need to make them understand that there are huge illegal profits behind it, that it hurts the illicit and legal businesses, and most importantly we have to send the message that if we criminalise all of those who knowingly use the victims, then we send the strong message to society about the culture of impunity - that people just go unpunished and do whatever they like. I think that is very important. 
I would also like to refer to Frontex very recent risk assessment, recalling that THB is one of the most profitable forms of organised crime, generating billions of euros. Quote: "The high levels of supply in origin countries, coupled with the demand for cheap labour and sexual services in the destination countries, are among the most common root causes of human trafficking.” On this, the EU rules are clear, demand is to be addressed as part of prevention.
- In many EU members traffickers still don't receive fast judicial process due to bad legislation. When can we expect this to change?
- Well, we did say that everybody needs to be brought to justice. Sometimes we like to blame bad legislation. In the case of trafficking we have to be honest. When all the NGOs from all the different fields say that this is good legislation, I feel we must have done something right. Because you know how everybody likes to criticise. But what could be improved, and this is across the EU in different levels, is the implementation. We need to do this well, meaningfully and fast. Because why are we sitting here making intellectual discussions when there are people's lives at stake. Instead, the judicial process has to be appropriate, and it has to be fast. There are a lot of difficulties that have been identified by actors as Eurojust, for example, which is a long list. We need to make sure that what can be improved for better judicial systems is done as relevant to do the job well and as fast as possible.
- Can you say which countries have laws criminalising people who use the services of victims? 
- One key action in the 2017 Communication is to further encourage all EU Member States, who haven't yet done so, to criminalise people who use the services of victims of trafficking. So far, some of them have laws in place for all forms of exploitation of victims, but some criminalise only the knowing use of sexual services of trafficking victims, others only in the field of labour, etc. The Commission has published a thorough report listing all the countries, and what they have done.
- How can profits from the trafficking business be blocked? Is it a mission impossible? 
- This is absolutely a possible mission. It is our first priority, and I think that if we put it as a political priority we can follow and find the money. I will give you one little mathematical example. In 2016, in Italy, the IOM estimated that around 9,000 victims of trafficking were women and girls coming from Nigeria to Italy via Libya. From only one country to another country, only one form of exploitation, only in one year, and only the ones that have been found. So, some 9,000 girls and women, 5 abusers per day as a conservative estimate, their abuse costing  between €5 and €90 a day, let us take a low average of €30. If you do the maths correctly, this comes to half a billion annually, only from the so-called users, we should call them rapists. So this is what the rapists pay for the victims.
- What is missing in the trafficking chain to find the money?
- There are many different methods that the police and the prosecution can use to do very thorough financial investigations to find them. You live in Bulgaria. If all of a sudden you ended up with a million euro, do you think nobody would ask questions and find out, if they wanted to? And this is a million euro, what about a billion? We need joint investigation teams, and we need cooperation of the police and the judiciary. We also need political will, because if a politician were to ask where the money is, the money would be found. I think the tools are available. We have an excellent police force in Europe, we have excellent tools, and we have all sorts of information technology. We have a very good banking system, we have all these positive tools, so how come we do not find the money? And as a very experience senior police officer once told me, we always find what we look for. If you are not looking for your keys, you won't find them in your bag. But when you look for them, even though you may have a very full handbag, you will find them. It is important to say that this is feasible, especially in Europe, to be able to look for the money. But we need to be consistent and really take this seriously and as a priority.

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