Human trafficking is the new slave trade – clandestine, highly lucrative – reducing human beings to disposable commodities, in total denial of their humanity. And it is on the rise: in 2012 the number of victims of forced labour and sexual exploitation was estimated at 20.9 million, up from 12.3 million in 2005 (ILO).

Typically victims are poor, hoping for a better life for their families, but human trafficking is not limited to one group or one type of exploitation. Anyone of any age, gender or social status can be a victim and be exploited in a multitude of ways, whether for forced labour, sexual services or criminal activities. They may even have vital organs removed.

Most victims of trafficking in Europe are subjected to quite subtle forms of abuse, like unregulated work and unpaid salaries. But the more extreme cases are shocking. The beautiful teenager lured abroad to become a model; drugged and forced into prostitution, her identity papers stolen. The girl sent to work as a cleaner in another country; locked in a cellar and sexually abused. The father tricked into working in a virtual labour camp to save his family from eviction; starved, sleep-deprived and beaten, ultimately to death.

The Council of Europe had already classified slavery, servitude and forced labour as human rights violations in its 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Ten years ago this month it decided these new forms of modern slavery required a specific, targeted text: its ground-breaking Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, opened for signature on 16 May 2005. Monitored by GRETA, the only independent panel of experts on trafficking in human beings in the world, the convention takes the Council of Europe’s hallmark human-rights approach to the problem. It stipulates that trafficked people be identified as victims of a serious human rights violation. They are entitled to: a residence permit, time to recover, counselling, medical care, legal advice, the right to compensation, accommodation, education for children and protection from intimidation. Child victims are given special protection and a legal guardian. The convention also covers the persecution of traffickers and the prevention of trafficking, discouraging trafficking by criminalising the use of victims’ services.

GRETA has found that sexual exploitation is the main form of trafficking across the 35 European countries monitored so far, with trafficking for forced labour on the rise and the main issue in some countries.  The question of identifying victims of trafficking, notably child victims, remains a major stumbling block. Other important challenges include the need to successfully prosecute traffickers and to provide adequate assistance, protection and access to compensation for victims.

Politically, there are concerns that helping victims of trafficking will heighten migratory pressure, despite the lack of supporting evidence. National authorities also face difficulties differentiating between smuggled migrants and victims of trafficking. But there is a crucial difference; victims of trafficking have been tricked, coerced, deceived or bought as a commodity for the purpose of exploitation.  Today, 43 European countries are bound by the convention, which has inspired new anti-trafficking legislation, policies and practices and changed the lives of thousands of victims. But much remains to be done to bring the whole of Europe into line with the convention: further legislative change, increased funding and better protection for the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, people with disabilities – an issue being closely monitored by GRETA.  It is also vital that Council of Europe Member States which have not yet ratified the convention – the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Russia and Turkey – do so rapidly. Human trafficking flourishes in the shadows. We must drag it into the light.