Expert Voice

EU Anti-Trafficking Day 2023: How the EU can improve cross-border cooperation in human trafficking cases

18 October 2023

A central challenge of a modern-day response to human trafficking, nationally and internationally, is putting in place co-operative frameworks to enable state actors to fulfil their obligations to protect and promote the human rights of trafficked persons and co-ordinate their efforts in a strategic partnership with civil society. On the occasion of the European Union (EU) Anti-Trafficking Day on 18 October 2023, the Anti-Trafficking Programme of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) stresses the importance of cross-border and multi-agency cooperation in combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims.

The cycle of protection measures for victims of trafficking has gaps that require urgent attention and solutions: early and equal access to assistance, effective coordination of services for victims, and implementation of case monitoring. These challenges persist despite the fact that more than two decades have passed since the United Nations brought countries together to agree on the concept of trafficking in human beings and a set of related key state obligations in 2000; and more than ten years have passed since the adoption of the EU Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims – the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive – in 2011.

The cooperative framework, known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) aims to ensure the respect of the human rights of trafficked persons, and to establish the effective mechanism and tools to refer victims of trafficking to the necessary and appropriate human rights-based and gender-sensitive assistance, support and protection.

The ICMPD developed this concept of cooperation even further. Seeing the specific challenges, the states faced in cross-border cooperation in human trafficking cases, ICMPD introduced already in 2009 the concept of linking NRMs of different countries with each other. Dubbed as Transnational Referral Mechanism (TRM), it builds upon national mechanisms for cooperation, thus enhancing the anti-trafficking response on regional level. TRM is a mechanism encompassing procedures for the comprehensive transnational assistance and support of trafficked persons. Such transnational mechanism is however not meant to replace any existing national anti-trafficking structure nor NRM. It is meant to build upon the NRMs or any other existing procedures in place and further enhance them. In some countries where NRM is lacking, the development of a TRM for the region could lead to the process of establishing a missing NRM and vice versa – the existing NRMs can inform the procedures, coordination, and infrastructure of the TRM.

An EU-wide study conducted with ICMPD’s expert support revealed that all but one EU Member State had some cooperation mechanisms aimed at early identification of, assistance to and support for victims of human trafficking, taking the shape of a formal or informal NRM. However, the study revealed little evidence on the functioning of TRMs, having been able to identify four EU Member States that reported some kind of coherent implementation framework for a TRM. Until today, there is no EU-wide TRM model in place. Still, there are some encouraging developments as the Council of the Baltic Sea States has just recently introduced a TRM for the Baltic Sea Region, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

In its Fourth Report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings, in December 2022, the EU Commission proposed in the amendment to the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive to make it mandatory for Member States to establish NRMs. The Inter-Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT), including ICMPD, in its joint submission in response to the revisions proposed by the EU Commission to the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive, particularly welcomed the introduction of the requirement to formalise NRMs.

Importantly, ICAT also recommended to ensure that NRMs foresee close cooperation and established protocols with the national asylum authorities. This recommendation was also informed by ICMPD’s empirical research, published already in 2018, that looked at the occurrence of human trafficking along the migration routes to Europe, and discovered an institutional disconnect between the anti-trafficking and asylum authorities.

In parallel to investing its efforts to improve the standard of protection of the trafficked persons in the EU and the wider European region, the ICMPD has been actively working for the past decade in partnership with regional and national institutions also in the West Africa region, to establish and support the NRMs, as well as to introduce a model Regional Referral Mechanism. The cooperation with the Commission and the Member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bore finally fruits in July 2023 when the representatives of anti-trafficking focal institutions from the ECOWAS Member States validated a Model Regional Referral Mechanism for the protection of victims of human trafficking in the ECOWAS region. This step paves the way for embarking on a journey towards harmonised approach in cross-border cooperation on human trafficking cases and in victim protection standards in the West Africa region. It also paves the way for improved cooperation with the EU Member States.


On this EU Anti-Trafficking Day, ICMPD calls upon the EU Member States to take the following two steps towards improving cross-border cooperation in human trafficking cases:

First, consider establishing an EU-wide TRM-model. The latest available data for the EU indicates that more than half of the registered victims across the EU were EU citizens, while only 37% of all registered victims were citizens of the country in which they were registered. The reality of cross-border human trafficking cases in terms of cooperation between the countries of destination and origin, is complex. A commonly agreed TRM provides the tools and standards to enable harmonised and structured approach.

Second, to ensure human rights-based protection measures for the trafficked persons, including in their return (upon their consent), the Member States need to keep supporting the development and advancement of NRMs in non-EU countries of origin and transit of victims, establishing TRMs in the regions including such countries, and finally - develop TRM-based models with such third countries. From thereon, the Member States should avoid returning trafficked persons outside such existing TRMs, specifically the NRMs of the country of return.

While supporting the development of the Model Regional Referral Mechanism for the ECOWAS region serves as an encouraging case in point, the importance of taking these measures needs to be echoed also in the revised EU Anti-Trafficking Directive.