Valiant Richey: The fight against trafficking in human beings is getting harder and more urgent

Numbers of identified victims are growing, while prosecutions are going down everywhere in the OSCE region

Photo: OSCE/Ghada Hazim Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings

Countries need to start looking aggressively at the entire business model of trafficking and tackle the conditions allowing the crime to thrive. At the OSCE, we launched a programme of assistance to countries who want to increase their prosecution: we help them train their police officers, prosecutors and judges. But everything starts with political will: countries need first to see this as a priority, says Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Richey, governments, civil and business organisations as well as media are involved in the fight against human trafficking in Europe, but the success achieved is still below the expectations. Why?

That is right. The fight against trafficking in human beings is far from over, and in fact is getting harder and more urgent. Numbers of identified victims are growing, while prosecutions are going down everywhere in the OSCE region. No State has been able to get a grip on the problem. I see a few reasons for this. First, combating trafficking has not been prioritised - the political will to fight against this heinous crime has been insufficient to adopt proper laws and allocate proper resources. Second, the crime has evolved while States' tools have not - today trafficking does not look how it looked twenty years ago, but we are still fighting with old tools. The internet for example changed the crime, and yet very few countries have an established presence of law enforcement online to identify victims and catch criminals. Third, we are not addressing the root of the problem, that is the demand fuelling it. Why is there sex trafficking? Because there is a demand paying for those services. Why is there labour trafficking? Because those goods will be sold well in the legitimate market. Countries need to start looking aggressively at the entire business model of trafficking and tackle the conditions allowing the crime to thrive.

One of the reasons for human trafficking is the low standard of living in a number of countries and the high unemployment rate. The poor countries are source of victims, especially in terms of labour exploitation. This battle is doomed to failure, isn't it?

I don't agree. There is no reason why we should accept as 'normal' or “inevitable” the exploitation of our fellow humans. Combating trafficking means combating a crime, yes, but it also means addressing those structural inequalities in our societies allowing trafficking to thrive. But make no mistake about it - poverty and unemployment alone do not cause trafficking. Trafficking is caused by criminals that are ready to exploit other humans to make profit by selling goods and services extracted from their victims. And they are selling those goods to us, all of us, which is why everyone has a role to play in defeating trafficking. Additionally, this highlights the need for a comprehensive approach that includes economic empowerment of vulnerable populations, particularly women who were hit especially hard economically by the pandemic.

In many European countries, severe sentences for this type of crime are rarely enforced and traffickers feel unpunished. What is the reason?

As I said earlier, trafficking has not been prioritised enough politically. If this was perceived as a priority, you'd have way more prosecutions and convictions. In reality, only one trafficker every 2,200 victims is prosecuted. For what other crime would we accept anything like this? At the OSCE, we launched a programme of assistance to countries who want to increase their prosecution: we help them train their police officers, prosecutors and judges. But everything starts with political will: countries need first to see this as a priority and to invest accordingly.

What is your assessment of the European campaign named Blind Betting, which was launched by Bulgaria last month to prevent trafficking in human beings, with a focus on sexual exploitation?

I thought it was a very good campaign. We need more of those. But we also need to start focusing our prevention efforts on the demand side, that is on men purchasing sexual services from trafficking victims. The burden cannot be only and always on women to “not get trafficked”, but needs to be put on men, on users of sexual services to “stop buying”. Think about it - if men stopped buying services, trafficking would not exist because there would be no incentive for traffickers to recruit and exploit their victims. I believe effective prevention operates at the root of the problem - demand.

Recently, especially in Eastern Europe, organ and baby trafficking has been worryingly growing. Why?

Trafficking in human beings for the purpose of organ removal is one of the least addressed and known forms of trafficking. We see worrying trends all across the OSCE area, we have been studying the issue with experts from other Organisations and we are raising it at the international level. Much more attention needs to be given to this topic, which is largely going unaddressed. Again, it is a question of political prioritisation.

What kind of actions does the OSCE take and to what extent can it deliver better results in the fight against human trafficking?

The OSCE support States through a variety of tools like political advocacy, technical assistance, research and policy development, and capacity building, and it looks at all aspects of human trafficking. It formulates policies to prevent human trafficking from taking place, by looking into supply chains and discouraging the demand that fuels exploitation; it designs effective strategies to investigate and prosecute traffickers, including through financial investigations; and it supports States in identifying and protecting victims of trafficking, including children. We also address persistent challenges like trafficking in migration flows, and emerging trends like technology-facilitated trafficking.

All this work then translates into impact through new State policies and enhanced capacity of anti-trafficking practitioners on the ground. We are here to support States, but ultimately it is up to States to fight trafficking on the ground every day. We can advise on what laws and policies need to be adopted, but we cannot adopt those laws for States. That's why I always say that the single greatest ingredient in the fight against trafficking is political will within governments and States. We need to want to defeat trafficking and exploitation, otherwise we will fail.

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Valiant (Val) Richey represents the OSCE at the political level on anti-trafficking issues, and assists the 57 OSCE participating States in the development and implementation of anti-trafficking strategies and initiatives. His Office also has a co-ordinating function among OSCE structures and institutions involved in combating trafficking in human beings.

Before joining the OSCE, he worked for thirteen years as a prosecutor in Seattle handling sexual assault, child exploitation and human trafficking cases. He led a coalition of law enforcement, NGOs, academics, service providers, philanthropists, and policy makers focused on the eradication of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in Washington State, and he was appointed by the Attorney General to represent prosecutors on the Washington State Trafficking in Persons Coordinating Committee. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Political Science from Boston University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Washington.

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