EU Response to the Crime of Human Trafficking

Written by Lina Laurinaviciute

“Trafficking in human beings is the slavery of our times” stresses the European Commission.[1] This position is largely reflected in the European Union (hereinafter EU) political interventions, which are usually seen in the international arena as exemplary with regard to fighting the crime of human trafficking in Europe. Indeed, the political commitment at the EU level to address this problem was established with large number of initiatives, measures and funding programmes both within the EU and external countries since the 1990s.[2]

However, the current economic situation faced by the EU countries raises business opportunities for traffickers. Human trafficking is considered to be one of the most profitable criminal activities worldwide, which estimated global annual profits are 31.6 billion U.S. dollars[3]. The warning of a dramatic increase in human trafficking put this complex issue involving criminality and law enforcement back on the political agenda of the EU and its Member States. Despite the lack of the reliable data, which makes it very problematic to develop comprehensive and effective measures to fight human trafficking, the estimated number of people trafficked to or within the EU amounts to several hundred thousand a year.[4]

Data collected by the European Commission in September 2011 shows that 76 % of registered victims of human trafficking were trafficked for sexual exploitation,14 % for forced labour, 3 % for forced begging,1 % for domestic servitude and the rest 6 % for criminal activities, removal of organs, etc. It also shows that women and girls are the main victims of this crime (79 %). Most Member States reported that majority of victims from within the EU come mainly from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, whereas most victims from non-EU countries are from Nigeria, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia and China.[5]

While systematically collected and managed data on human trafficking remains essential for the efficient response to this crime, legal instruments to approach human trafficking need be harmonized within the EU Member States.

Human Trafficking is specifically prohibited by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that: “Trafficking in human beings is prohibited.”[6] A lot of attention has also been paid to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (hereinafter Palermo Protocol) and the Council of Europe Convention on Actions against Trafficking in Human Beings.[7] Indeed, in the EU human trafficking is defined uniformly according to the Palermo Protocol: “Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.[8]

In the case of Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia the European Court of Human Rights provided a decisive human rights benchmark with clear obligations for the EU Member States to take the necessary steps to address different areas of human trafficking. These include recruitment, investigation, prosecution, protection of human rights, and providing assistance to victims. If the authorities are aware of a case of human trafficking, or that an individual risks being a victim of this crime, they are obliged to take appropriate measures.[9]

However, despite the obligations for the Member States to criminalise all possible acts that constitute human trafficking and to provide an adequate framework to protect victims of this crime, not all Member States have ratified the above mentioned legal instruments. As well, there are still legislative gaps in their transposition into domestic legislation. Therefore, “the elements determining Trafficking in Human Beings vary considerably across EU Member States.”[10]

A major step forward was the adoption of the new Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, in 2011.[11] The Directive adopts a comprehensive approach to human trafficking from a gender (as beforehand mentioned, women and children are particularly affected) and human rights perspective. It supports the harmonisation of the EU Member States’ criminal laws, possibility not to prosecute and apply penalties to victims for unlawful activities they were forced to commit by the traffickers, possibility to prosecute the EU nationals for human trafficking offences committed in another EU State or outside the EU. It also includes robust provisions on victim’s protection, including special measures for children as well as victims’ support, such as shelters, medical and psychological assistance, translation services.[12] The new Directive also requires Member States to set up a ‘National Rapporteur’ responsible for monitoring and implementation of anti-trafficking policy at national level. Whereas the European Commission has already appointed an EU Anti-trafficking Coordinator who will oversee the implementation of the EU Strategy towards the eradication of trafficking in human beings 2012-2016 (hereinafter the EU Strategy).[13]

The EU Strategy focuses on prevention, protection, prosecution, partnerships and also increasing knowledge on emerging concerns related to human trafficking.[14] This instrument reflects a number of EU initiatives in various policy areas which contribute to addressing human trafficking. For instance, the development of guidelines to improve identification of victims; the guidelines on child protection systems; the improvement of access to information for victims of their rights and support for them to exercise these rights effectively; the measures to reduce the demand for and supply of services and goods by victims of human trafficking; the development of the EU-wide guidance on future prevention measures and gender-sensitive information campaigns, as the awareness-raising campaigns already implemented in the Member States were evaluated as insufficient in their scale and impact.

These and others EU instruments determine that any approach to human trafficking must be based on the needs of victims. This also means that the measures against this crime must involve work in countries of origin, transit and destination. As an example, the case of Siliadin v. France in 2005, was the first human trafficking case considered by the European Court of Human Rights. The applicant, a female Togolese national who lived in Paris, had served as an unpaid servant for several years as minor and her passport was confiscated. In this case the Court held that it could not be considered that the applicant had been held in slavery in the traditional sense of that concept but considered that the applicant had, at the least, been subjected to forced labour.[15]

Despite a decade of efforts, the statistical figures show that a total number of cases related to human trafficking prosecuted in the EU remains low (1534 cases in 2008,1445-  in 2009, 1144 in 2010).[16] It is also clear, that human trafficking extends beyond individual Member States. Therefore the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking face additional problems. For instance, in the case Kodos v. Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania (2010) the Prosecutor General’s Office sought the defendant from another Member State for the purpose of prosecution for sexual exploitation of 8 Lithuanian women in the United Kingdom.[17]

Furthermore, “the trends, patterns and working methods of traffickers are changing in all the different forms of trafficking in human beings, adapting to changing patterns of demand and supply”.[18] For example, in the Roma father casein Italy (2010), the father who sold his underage daughter for 200,000 Euros to people who were exploiting her for criminal activities (forcing her to steal) was charged with enslavement.[19]

Thus to better investigate and prosecute traffickers and further increase cross-border cooperation and centralise knowledge on human trafficking, Member States are required to establish national multidisciplinary law-enforcement units on human trafficking. Such units would function as contact points for the EU agencies, in particular Europol.[20] The national authorities of Member States and the EU agencies are also encouraged to create where relevant joint investigation teams and involve Europol and Eurojust in all cross-border trafficking cases.[21]

Further, in accordance with the new Directive for monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of measures addressing human trafficking in the EU, the European Commission will present report every two years to the European Council and the European Parliament. The first report is to be issued in 2014,[22] while the attention to the problems and possible actions by the EU agencies and Member States is brought every year on 18th October, the EU Anti-Trafficking Day.

All the EU existing and intended legal instruments and measures seem to establish a holistic system on preventing and combating human trafficking and protecting its victims. However, the effect of these efforts will depend to a large extent on the will of the Member States to implement those instruments in domestic laws in a harmonized and fair manner, cooperation of all the provided actors within and outside the EU, as well as funding opportunities for these actions.


[1]The European Commission, Communication From the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, The EU Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings 2012–2016, COM(2012) 286 final, 19 June 2012, [hereinafter The EU Strategy], p. 3.

[2]TheEuropean Commission, Communication on trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation, COM(96) 567 final; European Commission, Communication on Fighting trafficking in human beings: an integrated approach and proposals for an action plan, COM(2005) 514 final; The EU Plan on best practices, standards and procedures for combating and preventing trafficking in human beings, 2005/C 311/01; European Commission, Commission working document on the Evaluation and monitoring of the implementation of the EU plan, COM(2008) 657, final.

[3] Patrick Besler, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits, working paper, International Labour Office, 2005.

[4]The European Commission, Trafficking in human beings, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/organized-crime-and-human-trafficking/trafficking-in-human-beings/index_en.htm, [accessed 5 November 2012].

[5]The EU Strategy, supra note 1, p. 2.

[6]The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 2000/C 364/01, Article 5.

[7]United Nations, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children,

supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000, [hereinafter Palermo Protocol]; The Council of Europe, Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, CETS No.197, 16 May 2005.

[8]Palermo Protocol, Article 3.

[9]European Court of Human Rights, Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, Application No 25965/04, Judgment (final), 10 May 2010.

[10]International Centre for Migration Policy Development, Study on the Assessment of the Extent of Different Types of Trafficking in Human Beings in EU Countries, April 2010, p. 2.

[11]Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and the Council on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, L 101/1, 15 April 2011.

[13]The EU Strategy, supra note 1, p. 4.

[14]Supra note 12.

[15]European Court of Human Rights, Siliadin v. France , Application No. 73316/01 , Judgment (final), 26 October 2005.

[16]The EU Strategy, supra note 1, p. 9.

[17]Royal Courts of Justice, Kodos v. Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania, Case No: CO/12374/2009, Judgment, 28 April 2010.

[18]The EU Strategy, supra note 1, p. 14.

[19]Supreme Court of Cassation, V. Criminal Section, The Roma father case, Case No. 35923, Judgment, 6 October 2010.

[20]The EU Strategy, supra note 1, p. 9.

[21]Ibid., p. 10.

[22]Ibid., p. 14.

* The poster is designed by RJDaae: http://rjdaae.deviantart.com.

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