Trafficking in people – usually for sexual or labour exploitation, but also for other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage, forced begging or the removal of organs – is a horrendous form of abuse and a scourge on Europe’s conscience.
Victims who manage to break free from their traffickers generally find themselves in a position of great insecurity and vulnerability. They have often been physically abused, mentally scarred and find themselves in strange surroundings with nowhere to live and little in the way of money or possessions.
In such circumstances, there is a high risk of further exploitation, re-victimisation and abuse.
Although preventing trafficking is crucial, and offenders must always be effectively prosecuted and punished, it is extremely important that we take proper care of the victims of trafficking – whoever they may be, and whatever their circumstances.
Not only is this simply the right thing to do, morally speaking, but countries across Europe are also legally obliged to do it.
These obligations stem from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, a legally-binding international treaty which covers 47 countries across the continent.
As well as taking a series of steps to prevent trafficking and prosecute offenders, the convention also obliges states to help victims of trafficking with their physical, psychological and social recovery – in other words, to rebuild their lives. There are many different aspects to this.
Firstly, states have to make sure there are legal grounds for providing assistance to victims, wherever they come from. This has to be backed up with the necessary resources, and it should not depend upon victims’ willingness to co-operate with the authorities.
As a first step, states must provide suspected victims of trafficking with emergency medical treatment, which can also provide important evidence to help with prosecutions. In the longer term, psychological assistance is often needed to help victims fully recover from their traumatic ordeals.
Victims of trafficking often find themselves with very little money and other material resources. They need not only a decent level of financial assistance, to end their dependency on their traffickers, but often also clothes and food.
Crucially, victims of trafficking often find themselves in a foreign country where they do not speak the language. Quickly providing them with relevant information, in a language they understand, can go a long way to making sure that they get the support they are entitled to – including legal support – and that traffickers are properly punished.
Providing victims with appropriate and secure accommodation is also paramount, bearing in mind that victims of trafficking have different needs to victims of domestic violence, for example. Suitable shelters must also be available for men – who are often the victims of the widespread growth in trafficking for labour exploitation – as well as for children and families.
Finally, it needs to be possible for victims of trafficking to reintegrate into society, whether in the host country or back in their country of origin.
This means allowing and helping them to find work, ideally in cooperation with the private sector, as well as opening up possibilities for training and education. Destitution pushes survivors back into the hands of the traffickers.
Furthermore, social inclusion and reintegration measures also have to take into account the fact that women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by trafficking. This is linked to the fact that discrimination in many societies makes females more vulnerable to poverty and marginalisation.
The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) monitors how states put the anti-trafficking convention into practice.
In the 10 years since the convention came into force, GRETA has identified numerous examples of good practice in all of these areas. However, the opposite is also true.
GRETA’s country-by-country reports have shown that, too often, victims are simply not provided with the levels of assistance and support that they need and which they are entitled to.
This prolongs the pain of the individuals involved, makes it easier for the traffickers to ply their ruthless trade and adds to Europe’s shame.