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Expert Voice: The Fight against Trafficking in Human Beings – The First Twenty Years

16 October 2020


2020 is a year of reflection, marked by the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). To mark the EU Anti-Trafficking Day 2020, ICMPD takes the opportunity to reflect upon the past years. Twenty years ago, the adoption of UNTOC was the first major step in the fight against transnational organised crime. Its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children provided the first legally binding modern definition of trafficking in persons (TIP) and an impetus to develop national anti-trafficking legislation.

This expert voice was written by the ICMPD Anti-Trafficking Team.

ICMPD relied on the political will and readiness of the governments of its Member States to add the transnational organised crime and particularly trafficking in human beings (THB) to their migration agendas. We gathered a team of experts on countering THB to develop ICMPD’s expertise. In the years that followed, this initiative advanced into a full-fledged Anti-Trafficking Programme with a global reach.The past 20 years have seen major developments in the anti-trafficking response around the world. The understanding of THB grew along with the number of signatories to UNTOC and its TIP Protocol (today counting 147 and 117 countries, respectively) bringing the concept of consistent and coordinated national anti-trafficking policy into fruition. This process received an important boost in 2005 with the adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. This Convention balanced out UNTOC’s focus on the criminal investigation process and the punishment of the traffickers with that of the protection of victims and safeguarding their rights. It marked a crucial change anchoring an approach that requires placing the trafficked persons’ rights and needs at the core of every national or regional anti-traf¬ficking policy and intervention. The European Union used the same approach to adopt the Directive 2011/36/EU on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims, paving the road towards more comprehensive EU anti-trafficking policy.

Sailing in Southeast Europe’s tailwind, countries across the globe gradually established their national anti-trafficking coordination mechanisms, elaborated their anti-trafficking strategies and action plans. ICMPD fostered this process of shared understanding and coordinated action of THB stakeholders, protection of victims, political and financial support and accountability by elaborating Regional standards and guidelines for development and implementation of comprehensive national anti-trafficking responses. Until today, governments bank on ICMPD’s expertise in improving their strategic frameworks. 

In the meanwhile and in order to ensure effective identification, referral and support for trafficked persons and to safeguard their human rights within this process, the countries embarked on developing national referral mechanisms and related standard operating procedures. These mechanisms and procedures serve to improve the identification of trafficked persons and the coordination among the national anti-trafficking actors to address effectively every THB case. The need for cooperation and investigation of international THB cases sparked the development of regional and transnational referral mechanisms (TRM). In 2006-2010, ICMPD developed, piloted and successfully implemented a model for transnational referral of victims of THB in Southeast Europe. This was the first ever initiative to establish a unified regional approach in the referral of victims of cross-border THB cases. 

The narrative of early 2000s approached the THB mainly from the angle of international organised crime, irregular migration and prostitution. The need to respond to increasing number of labour exploitation cases ignited the debate on the issues of demand and supply chains – inhuman working conditions, worst forms of child labour, debt bondage, and slavery-like practices. In 2012, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published Indicators for Forced Labour, in support to the front-line criminal law enforcement officials, labour inspectors, trade union officers, NGO workers and others to identify persons who might be in a forced labour situation, and who may require urgent assistance. This has become the leading tool for development of indicators to recognise cases of THB for forced labour. 

In recent years, the war in Syria and the resulting migration flows have turned the spotlight on the issues of vulnerability and resilience to THB in the context of humanitarian crises and mixed migration flows. ICMPD has contributed to the discourse by providing in 2015 the first empirical, multi-country research assessing the links between conflict, displacement and THB. We followed this with another assessment of the gaps, needs and challenges in the identification, referral, protection and rehabilitation of trafficked people who used migration routes to Europe (2018). Most recently, we closely examined and analysed the factors contributing to the resilience and the vulnerability to THB and other abuses among people travelling along the migration routes to Europe (2019). 

Where to go from here? 

The improvements in the field of cooperation on handling THB cases, prosecution of traffickers and protection of victims in the past 20 years are numerous and undeniable. Still, many challenges remain. Based on our experience and expertise, we highlight hereunder some of the most urgent issues requiring solutions:

  • Need for early identification of victims and easy and unconditional access to assistance and protection. THB is a crime against the individual and a serious human rights violation. However, twenty years after the adoption of UNTOC, the most urgent challenge is the low number of identified and assisted victims. Often victims failed to be identified due to the highly formalised procedure or lack of capacity among first-level responders. Identifying victims efficiently and at an early stage is the first step to making sure they are treated as rights holders, have access to their rights and can exercise them effectively
  • Need for a paradigm shift in how THB, refugee, migration and child protection policies are viewed in terms of access to protection. People on the move are vulnerable because of their need to move, and because this means they often simultaneously hold multiple legal statuses (refugees, internally displaced persons, irregular migrants or trafficked people). In order to avoid a situation where such girls and boys, women and men, fall through the cracks of state policy and legislative frameworks just because they do not fit into one specific category, the anti-trafficking stakeholders must collaborate closely with the stakeholders working on internal displacement, international protection, child protection, irregular migration and migrant smuggling. In addition, new forms of THB related to the migration flows, such as deprivation of liberty for extortion and forced migrant smuggling need to be acknowledged, and capacities of anti-trafficking stakeholders to identify trafficked people among those using migration routes must be developed.
  • The states’ responses to COVID-19 clearly underline the need for contingency planning to ensure minimum functionality of anti-trafficking systems in emergency conditions. The contingency plan must ensure a minimum package of services available to the victims to meet their immediate needs during the period of reduced possibilities for referral, protection, investigation of the case and court proceedings. The pandemic clearly demands rethinking and adapting the standard responses to THB. Safeguarding public health cannot disregard those in a vulnerable situation or those who have already been trafficked. More specifically, now is also the time to plan for countermeasures to the consequences of the economic crisis due to COVID-19 pandemic. The trends observed during the 2008-2010 Global Financial Crisis suggest that increased unemployment rates resulted likely in increased cross-border trafficking in persons from countries experiencing the fastest and longest-lasting drops in employment. As the World Bank described the current economic downturn as the deepest recession since the World War II, it is likely that such trends of increased cross-border THB will manifest again. This calls for countermeasures to an expected lack of resources for supporting the implementation of anti-trafficking policies, decrease of reintegration opportunities for victims due to the challenges the national economies are already facing, decrease of employment opportunities, increased vulnerability to irregular labour migration, etc.
  • Need for harmonised actions in transnational coordination and cooperation on THB between countries of origin, transit and destination. These actions should be embedded in the relevant regional policy dialogues and in the existing and future cooperation frameworks (for instance Mobility Partnerships and Common Agendas for Migration and Mobility in case of the EU and third countries. The countries of exploitation should make efforts to better coordinate the actions on victims’ return with the source countries. The process of return is a constant challenge in the bilateral cooperation on THB cases. As a result of the lack of coordination, it is often impossible for the receiving organisation to prepare properly. Such actions could jeopardise the safety of the victim, and reflect negatively in the increased risk of re-trafficking. Therefore, we stress upon the need of coordinated approach for transnational referral of cases, based on the principles for safe return of trafficked persons and built upon the existing national response mechanisms in the countries of exploitation and origin.

More information on ICMPD’s Anti-Trafficking Programme can be found here