Olivier Onidi: The pandemic changes the organised crime landscape

EC will present a new Action Plan to fight against smuggling, building on cooperation with partner countries

The Anti-trafficking directive is our core instrument within the European Union, which is comprehensive, victim centred, gender specific and child sensitive. The Commission will make legislative and other proposals to make effective the fight against the financial aspects of organised crime, including trafficking, Olivier Onidi, Deputy Director-General of the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs at the European Commission and EU Anti-trafficking Coordinator, says in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Onidi, what is the effect of the pandemic on human trafficking in Europe?

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in considerable changes in the serious and organised crime landscape. Criminals have quickly adapted their illicit activities in the context of the crisis. Whilst we cannot yet measure the impact of the pandemic on trafficking in human beings, reports published by international organisations, EU agencies and civil society organisations raised the alarm. The pandemic hindered victims' access to justice, assistance and support services and made their identification difficult. It was more difficult for law enforcement and the judiciary to respond to the crime. Traffickers continued preying on social and economic vulnerabilities of people, which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Many predict that these difficulties will result in increased trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation.

This must be prevented by all means. Our new comprehensive EU action has an important component on prevention and increasing prosecutions and convictions and protecting victims. Trafficking for sexual exploitation continued to take place during the pandemic in more hidden places, for instance private apartments rented or owned by the criminal networks. Traffickers moved to a new business model of online recruitment and exploitation of victims, increasingly advertising victims on the internet.

The new EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings 2021-2025, adopted on 14 April 2021, takes into account the Covid-19 pandemic, just as the European Commission's two most recent calls for proposals for transnational EU actions under Asylum, Migration and the Internal Security Fund.

The Covid crisis has hit hard the economies of countries that are a source of migrants to Europe. Is a new large influx expected in the summer or will the closed borders prevent such a wave?

First of all, I should stress, that while it is true that the Covid pandemic has had a considerable impact both on regular passenger flows, in particular on so-called non-essential travel, as well as on irregular migration towards the EU external borders, our borders have never been and cannot be closed entirely. Essential travel should always be possible, which includes persons in need of international protection. Secondly, based on our experience last year, travel restrictions and closed borders might have a heterogeneous impact on irregular migration. On one side, the overall number of irregular arrivals to the EU decreased. On the other side, we witnessed considerable spikes, beyond pre-pandemic figures, along some migratory routes.

Regardless of Covid-19 then, the seasonal increase of irregular immigration during the summer, due to more favourable weather conditions facilitating the crossing of the external land and sea borders, is not new and crossings will continue to take place. It is true that over the past week, we have seen an increase in arrivals in the Central Mediterranean - compared to last year. But, this does not compare to the number of arrivals seen in 2015 and again in 2016. The situation is manageable and that is what we are setting out to do.

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum contains a number of key proposals that would make a tangible difference in addressing potential surges in irregular migration. The Commission will present a new Action Plan to fight against smuggling, building on cooperation with partner countries that we are already reinforcing. The Pact will also strengthen safe and legal pathways to Europe, both for refugees and for people seeking to come to Europe for economic reasons, while at the same time strengthening penalties for illegal employment. In parallel, the Pact will strengthen capacities to manage arrivals. The new border procedure would allow for much faster and more efficient decisions on people's right to stay, returning those who arrive irregularly and have no right to stay. Relocations and return sponsorships would improve responsibility sharing to make sure coastal states have enough capacities, as would strengthened European agencies. Agreement on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is as urgent as ever. The Commission is working closely with the Parliament and the current Portuguese and incoming Slovenian Council Presidency to that end.

The Commission, together with the relevant Union Agencies, such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), stands ready to step up support to Member States which would be affected by increased irregular migration at their external borders. Regarding Frontex, it should also be noted that the rollout of the European Border and Coast Guard Standing Corps is in progress, which would enable the Agency to adjust the deployments to the changing operational needs at the external borders. Frontex can also facilitate forced or voluntary return of third country nationals to their countries of origin.

Which are the most important instruments to prevent human trafficking and why do some EU members fail to use them?

The Anti-trafficking directive is our core instrument within the European Union, which is comprehensive, victim centred, gender specific and child sensitive. It defines the crime and criminal sanctions and sets requirements for prevention, protecting victims and investigations and prosecutions. The directive sets minimum requirements across Member States and the Commission oversees its transposition and implementation processes proactively. The Directive is complemented by the recently adopted EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in human beings 2021-2025, which was adopted together with the horizontal EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime for the same period. We anchor our anti-trafficking action in fighting organised crime networks, boosting law enforcement and judicial cooperation, disrupting organised crime structures and tackling high priority crimes, eliminating the profits generated by organised crime and making law enforcement and the judiciary fit for the digital age. The dedicated anti-trafficking strategy addresses the specificity of this complex crime with overarching legal, policy, and operational initiatives by reducing demand that fosters trafficking, breaking the criminal model to halt victims' exploitation; protecting, supporting and empowering the victims, especially women and children; and with furthering international dimension.

Despite prevention initiatives undertaken, the demand for using exploited victims' services has not been reduced. The impunity of perpetrators in the EU persists, and the numbers of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers remain low. Effective law enforcement and judicial actions can have strong deterrent effect. EU agencies, such as Europol and Eurojust are there to support Member States' efforts in this regard. Discouraging demand is part of prevention measures in the Anti-trafficking Directive. This later requests EU Member States to consider criminalising the knowing use of services exploited from trafficked persons. This currently means a diverse legal landscape across the EU where employers and users face different consequences where they employ or use the bodies, labour and services of trafficked people. The Commission will carry out an assessment on the possibility of having minimum EU rules that criminalise the use of exploited services of trafficking victims.

Is the EU successful in combating labour exploitation, which is a form of modern slavery?

15% of all victims within the EU were trafficked for labour exploitation. There are indications for increasing number of victims trafficked for labour exploitation purposes. Most of the victims are men (68%), but women are also particularly affected in certain sectors, such as domestic work, care or cleaning services. High risk sectors include agriculture, construction, hospitality. Few Member States reported an increasing tendency in children being amongst victims of trafficking for labour exploitation. Certainly there is progress made, including with the identification of victims of trafficking by relevant authorities, partly due to the intensification of labour inspections in cooperation with law enforcement. Member States have taken measures in order to improve the identification of the victims of trafficking for labour exploitation, including trainings for labour and social inspectors and other professionals, joint inspections and investigations and awareness-raising activities targeting high sectors.

Yet, concerns are expressed that victims trafficked for labour exploitation remain undetected. The EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings 2021-2025 proposes key actions in order to reinforce the criminal justice response to trafficking for labour exploitation. We encourage national authorities to intensify the joint efforts with labour inspectors and social partners and EU agencies. Europol and, within its remit, the European Labour Authority, are important actors to carry out concerted and joint inspections in high-risk sectors and improve the identification of the victims and their exploiters. We will assess how to strengthen the effectiveness of the Employers' Sanctions Directive in prohibiting the employment of irregularly staying non-EU nationals, including victims of trafficking in human beings. A campaign targeting high-risk sectors and high-risk environments will also be organised together with Member States and civil society organisations. The Commission will also support responsible management of global supply chains of products and human rights due diligence by putting forward a legislative proposal on sustainable corporate governance and will provide guidance on due diligence against forced labour and guide socially responsible public procurement.

Does the fight against laundering of funds from human trafficking continue to fail in the EU and why?

The recently published EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment indicates that criminal networks which contract the services of professional money launderers are often involved in a range of crime areas, including drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling. Trafficking in human beings remains a crime threat and it evolves within the European Union. In one single year the criminal revenue from trafficking for sexual exploitation is estimated to be about €14 billion within the EU. Combatting criminal finances, money laundering and facilitating asset recovery are important EU objectives. While trafficking in human beings is highly lucrative crime, financial investigations are not routinely used as a method of detection. Confiscating criminal proceeds certainly could have deterrent effect.

However, only a minor share of money laundering activities is detected, and only 1% of criminal assets is confiscated. Much is being done already. Through the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Crime Threat (EMPACT), Member States and their partners carry out over 200 joint operational actions every year, aimed at fighting organised crime, including addressing the methods of these criminal groups to launder money. There are good examples of joint operations between Member States with support from Europol and Eurojust to fight traffickers and money laundering. The early financial investigations, building up investigators' capacity to tackle the financial dimension of organised crime, stepping up freezing and confiscation efforts with stronger capacities of Asset Recover Offices are important elements in this fight. With the establishment of the European Financial and Economic Crime Centre, Europol can better support Member States in conducting financial investigations.

However, we need to step up our efforts. One of the key priorities of the recently adopted EU Strategy to Tackle Organised Crime is eliminating profits generated by organised crime and preventing infiltration into the legal economy and society. In this regard the aims and actions for reinforcing asset recovery and anti-money laundering measures, promoting financial investigations applies also directly to trafficking in human beings. While ensuring the implementation of available EU legal instruments, the Commission will make legislative and other proposals to make effective the fight against the financial aspects of organised crime, including trafficking. As indicated in the EU strategy to tackle Organised Crime, the Commission is preparing legislative proposals aimed at reinforcing and developing the EU Anti-Money Laundering Framework to establish a directly applicable single rule book, to strengthen EU-level supervision and to establish an EU coordination and support mechanism for Financial Intelligence Units. The implementation of other EU legislation across Member States, such as the Directive on facilitating access to financial information, providing law enforcement authorities with access to centralised bank account registries and strengthening cooperation between law enforcement authorities and Financial Intelligence Units, is equally important. The Commission will propose a revision of the 2014 Confiscation Directive and of the 2007 Council Decision on Asset Recovery Offices also to introduce more effective rules on non-conviction based confiscation; ensure effective management and social reuse of confiscated assets and compensation of victims of crime and reinforce the capacity of Asset Recovery Offices to trace and identify illicit assets.

 Close-up

Since May 2016, Olivier Onidi is Deputy Director-General of the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME) at the European Commission with particular responsibility over security. In this capacity, he oversees the activities in the fields of terrorism and violent extremism, organised crime, cybersecurity, information systems and innovation. He also headed the Secretariat of the European Commission's Task Force for the Security Union. Since March 2020, he is also EU Anti-trafficking Coordinator. His last assignment was Deputy Director-General of DG HOME with the specific task to coordinate the Commission-wide work related to the Central Mediterranean Route in the context of the refugee crisis.

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