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Stopping Europe's slavery

By Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, and Myria Vassiliadou, EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator

19 June 2012.

Published in Haravgi (CY), Politiken (DK), Huffington Post (FR), Aftonbladet (SE) and others

Photo: Emily's mind/Flickr (CC)

Human traffickers are gaining ground and finding new methods while few perpetrators are brought to justice. Now, the EU must sharpen its tools further in order to protect victims and punish those responsible.

As Europe is working closer together against the slavery of our times – trafficking in human beings – new patterns are appearing within this despicable trade. Children are exploited by criminal gangs across Europe face an increased risk of being trafficked once again as adults. The most vulnerable in our societies increasingly become targets, such as people with disabilities, women escaping domestic violence, or children left behind by parents working abroad. While women do represent a majority of the victims, traffickers do not discriminate – men are forced into hard labour, children are coerced into begging and stealing, girls and boys are forced into sexual exploitation.

This is increasingly happening within and amongst EU countries and now, Europe must act and take responsibility. Today, the European Commission is presenting a five-year strategy for working towards the eradication of trafficking in human beings. It ties the good forces of Europe closer together and puts victims at the forefront.

Cristina from Romania was forced into marriage at the age of 13. She was brought to Spain and Belgium to beg in the streets, before managing to escape her captors. Mark, an unemployed British man in his 20s, was offered a job and free housing but ended up working under slave-like conditions in Sweden. 18 year-old Sophie, also from the UK, went to Italy with a male friend who then sold her to up to 30 men daily. There are many, many more such victims– hundreds of thousands in the EU, and several million worldwide.

It is daunting, then, to see that trafficking cases rarely make it to court in European countries, and that the number of convictions against traffickers has gone down over the past few years, from around 1500 convictions in 2008 to 1100 two years later. Here, every single EU country has a major responsibility to make sure that these issues are given the weight that they deserve.

Human trafficking across borders is a matter where it is easy to agree on the benefits of European cooperation. Despite the economic crisis and the great difficulties that the European Union is facing, we are united by common values; such as standing up for human rights and defending our societies' most vulnerable. We must not lose track of those values, irrespective of the current crisis. Europeans agree – according to a new Eurobarometer poll, 93 percent of us believe it is important for the EU to cooperate against human trafficking.

This is why we need to deepen our efforts, sharpen our tools and learn from the past years' developments. Priorities in the strategy that the European Commission is presenting today range from bringing more perpetrators to justice, to helping the victims in every way possible, to understanding new patterns and trends. Law enforcement authorities in every EU country should set up dedicated national units dealing with trafficking. These will function as points of contact when, for example, authorities in another country need help with an ongoing investigation. Joint investigation teams will be launched between EU member states and the European police authority, Europol.

In terms of police work, it is more important than ever to start following the money trail – that is, collecting evidence by investigating the financial assets of traffickers. We also need an increased focus on the middlemen of this industry – corrupt temporary work agencies and the like.

Europe has already taken steps in the right direction. Last year, EU legislation was passed, giving these crimes equal gravity in courts across Europe. Member states are now bound by law to give health care and support to victims. But more can and must be done. Next year, an EU-ranging network will be set up between organisations and authorities who specialise in victim support. EU funds will also finance research into how perpetrators are changing their recruiting methods, increasingly focusing on social media and online ads. It is also key that we study the demand side of trafficking. Without the buyers, there are no victims.

Dedicated action is required to help the children who end up in the clutches of traffickers. According to figures from the London police, the price of buying a trafficked child in the UK is 20.000 euros, a "debt" that victims can then be forced to pay off. Despite their vulnerability, there is no common definition in the EU of how to guard these children's best interests, and what role legal guardians and representatives should have. Such guidelines will now be drawn up at EU level.

However, setting up a strategy is not enough. In the end, these measures depend on the resources given by member states when setting the EU budget for the coming years. It is imperative that member states do not lower their ambitions, if we are to do right by the victims and the European public. The economic crisis must not become an excuse to compromise with our ideals. Trafficking in human beings must be eradicated – with the strategy presented today, the EU can work together to reach that goal.