The new slave trade

Publicado: 25 mayo 2005 0:00 CET

Alex Wynter

The European Union promises action on trafficking. “All EU countries are affected, either as countries of origin, transit or destination,” the new Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini told reporters when he was presented with a report by a group of experts. It was his first initiative since the new executive took office in late November.

At the end of 2004, human trafficking could claim to be at the top of Europe’s criminal justice agenda. The key concepts in the international definition of trafficking are deception and exploitation.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement has yet to formally adopt the trafficking protocol; it is primarily a law enforcement rather than a humanitarian measure. But the detailed, even cumbersome definition reflects the first problem in addressing trafficking: deciding who has been trafficked.

The popular perception of trafficking is the sexual exploitation of women, who travel abroad having been promised supposedly legitimate work but who find themselves forced into prostitution by gangsters. But this is not the whole story. Children are trafficked for a variety of reasons, including sweatshop labour or, especially if they are below the age of criminal responsibility, petty crime.

In Denmark, for example, there have been cases of trafficked labourers – men – being found living illegally in tents on building sites, poorly fed and even more poorly paid, if at all.

“Entire industrial sectors in Europe, like tourism, the service and domestic services, construction and agriculture, are propped up by migrant workers,” argues Helené Lackenbauer, the International Federation’s adviser on population movement. “This creates a demand for smugglers’ services – the traffickers follow.”

The UN protocol also stipulates that the recruitment, transfer and exploitation of “any person under eighteen years of age” constitutes trafficking even if no deception is involved, and it adds organ removal to the possible categories of exploitation.

But as recently as 2002, the UN children’s agency UNICEF – in a major report on human trafficking in south-east Europe – said that there is “no general understanding or acceptance of the definition of trafficking among the institutions and persons...responsible for anti-trafficking work on the ground.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is in the front line. “We have developed special interview procedures intended to uncover whether someone has been trafficked,” its new head of counter-trafficking, Richard Danziger, told The Bridge. “We’re preparing a handbook that will be made available to all interested NGOs this year.”

Some in the Red Cross argue that it is wise not to get too bogged down in the definitional issue, and that the common-sense concept of “vulnerability” – which often amounts to simple judgement at branch level – is most useful in practice. Not all sex workers have necessarily been trafficked, as UNICEF points out, and young males are trafficked for sexual exploitation too.

The 2004 global survey of human trafficking by the US State Department, the fourth of its kind and widely agreed to be the single most authoritative source, found that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across borders worldwide every year, though it acknowledged that other agencies put the figure far higher. Of these, 70 per cent are female and 50 per cent children, according to the survey, while the majority of women and girls fall into commercial sex.

For the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, 2004 was a watershed year. The project entitled European RC/RC Cooperation in Response to Human Trafficking, which is being facilitated at the Danish Red Cross national headquarters in Copenhagen by the International Federation’s former regional population movement delegate, Zsolt Dudas, got under way.

In an attempt to bring clarity and coherence to this complex area, it launched a wide-ranging exercise in National Society mapping, designed by Dudas, which should highlight both gaps and strengths.

Twelve European Red Cross societies had met in the Danish capital on 3 May, just after the very hour of EU enlargement, to take up the torch first lit at the Berlin regional conference in 2002.

Lynette Lowndes, head of the International Federation’s Europe Department, emphasized that the cooperation initiative, which involves both source and destination countries, reflected “a new situation for Europe: a shared problem that goes beyond traditional PNS-ONS distinctions.”

There is no doubt that in the straightforward work of educating young people about the dangers of phoney job ads or blandishments from traffickers and their agents, local Red Cross networks in source countries have much to offer.

“Red Cross and Red Crescent societies can play an essential role by helping to prevent potential victims from falling prey to traffickers, and by providing services for returnees,” Helga Konrad, the OSCE’s special representative on trafficking, told The Bridge.

National Societies, she added, are also “extremely valuable in providing information and raising awareness of the risks of trafficking.”

*This article first appeared in ‘The Bridge’