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Europe’s fight against trafficking in human beings, a new form of slavery

By Terry Davis
Thursday, January 24
Europe may well have abolished slavery 200 years ago, but it has not yet been stamped out. Across Europe criminal gangs are getting rich through the trade in human beings—and many governments are not doing enough to stop it.

Trafficking in human beings is not the most discreet form of crime. Its victims can be found every evening on the banks of a canal near the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg, and in other cities in Georgia and across Europe. The heavy make-up does nothing to conceal their anguish and despair. Occasionally, they are rounded up by the police and deported to their countries of origin. In most cases, they will be forced back into slavery in some other corner of Europe before the ink of the signatures on their deportation orders has had time to dry.

Regrettably, criminals always seem to be one step ahead. While the traffickers are getting rich, the trafficked are paying the price. While sexual exploitation is the most frequent motive for trafficking, people are also being trafficked for the purpose of forced labour, servitude and organ removal.

To put an end to this frustrating and shameful state of affairs, the Council of Europe produced a groundbreaking new Convention in 2005 to strengthen international co-operation, prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers, help the victims and create a monitoring mechanism to ensure that governments comply with what they have signed.

The Convention will enter into force on 1 February and have immediate legal effect in the first ten countries to ratify it: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Georgia, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Norway, which have ratified it in January, it will enter into force on 1 May.

The Convention is the first international agreement to treat the trafficked human beings as the victims instead of the perpetrators of crimes. It is designed to protect their human rights and human dignity, give them a realistic chance to rebuild their lives and put these modern slave traders behind bars.

Trafficking in human beings requires the broadest possible international co-operation and must include countries of origin, transit and destination. The Convention is open not only to the 47 members of the Council of Europe, but also to non-European countries, and therefore offers the possibility of a global response to a global problem.

Preventive measures include awareness-raising in the countries of origin to dispel the lies and manipulations spread by the criminals on the lookout for future victims. At the other end, governments in the countries of destination must act to discourage demand. In practical terms this means that, regardless of the legal status of prostitution in any given country, authorities must prosecute people who know that they are paying for sex with a victim of human trafficking. This of course is not the only way to reduce demand: awareness-raising initiatives and training are also crucial aspects to reduce the demand-side of trafficking.

The Convention introduces a 30 day recovery and reflection period for the victims of trafficking and the possibility of a temporary residence permit which is not subject to the victim’s co operation with the police. It is based on the experience of several Council of Europe member states which shows that voluntary co-operation is likely to produce better results in terms of prosecution of traffickers.

The Convention has the potential to reduce significantly the scale of human trafficking in Europe. Its entry into force is a crucial step but many countries—most of them at the destination end of this trade—have not yet ratified it and are dragging their feet. When prodded, governments often invoke their fear of illegal immigration, but they are clearly missing the point. To put it bluntly, treating a victim of human trafficking as an illegal immigrant is the same as charging a rape victim with obscene conduct. Similarly, the argument that many of the victims should know that their job description will go beyond exotic dancing carries the same weight as the argument that provocative dressing is an invitation to sexual assault. No one, under any circumstances, has the right to deprive another human being of freedom and force her or him to engage in acts which violate their human dignity and human rights.

It is time to put an end to trafficking in human beings in Europe and the entry into force of this Convention provides an opportunity to do so. This is why the countries which have not yet ratified or even signed it should do so without any further delay.

Terry Davis is the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.