Europe: Pledges harsher penalties for ‘sex slave’ traffickers

by Brian Kenety

Brussels, 8 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Top European Union (EU) officials pledged Thursday to seek tough universal sanctions on traffickers whilst affording more rights to their victims, including the right to temporary residence permits for those who co-operate with European authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

As many as 700,000 women and children are moved across international borders by well-organised criminal trafficking rings each year. Of that number, the EU estimates that over 120,000 women and children are brought illegally into western Europe, most to work as prostitutes, and often against their will.

“Western Europe must face up to an uncomfortable fact: it is the heart of a modern-day slave trade,” said Anna Diamantopoulou, the EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, during a special hearing at the European Parliament Thursday - International Women’s Day.

“This is not an over-dramatisation,” she said. “Many [trafficked persons] are bought and sold into forced prostitution, beaten, imprisoned, raped and sometimes killed.”

According to the ‘World Migration Report 2000’, by the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM), international migration is becoming increasingly feminised, with women making up almost 50% of the estimated 150 million international migrants worldwide.

With more and more migrant women travelling independently or preceding their families in the migration process, the risk of falling prey to traffickers can only increase. “This new slave trade has become a global business generating billions of dollars for organised criminal networks. In too many parts of the world, traffickers profit from lax sanctions, insufficient countermeasures, and a lack of awareness on the part of potential migrants,” said IOM in an International Women’s Day statement.

IOM Deputy Director-General, Ndioro Ndiaye, said that while the organisation provides protection, shelter and return assistance to these victims and carries out information campaigns to alert potential victims, it could not act as an enforcement agency.

“We rely on governments to put strict laws in place to punish the perpetrators. Only when these laws are in place and strictly enforced, will we make any significant headway in our fight against the trafficking of women and children,” she said.

Against this backdrop, Diamantopoulou said that the only sensible way forward was a multi-tiered strategy against trafficking that attacked two root causes, the feminisation of poverty in countries of origin and the demand for paid sex in Western Europe with scant legislation in place to address the plight of the trade’s victims.

“[It is] a fatal mixture of desperation and belief in the possibility of a better life somewhere else ... coupled with a disregard for human life and the human rights of women,” she said, arguing for greater EU-wide access to related healthcare, social and psychological services.

“If women can be allowed to stay for some time in the country where they have been exploited, it is possible to give [such] longer-term support,” said Diamantopoulou.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, considers that once its proposal on combatting organised crime, together with two proposals tabled by France on unauthorised entry, movement and residence, currently under discussion by member states, is adopted, the EU “will be the most clearly committed and advanced part of the world in the fight against traffickers and smugglers in human beings”.

Antonino Vitorino, EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, told the hearing that the Commission is furthermore due to issue a communique next month suggesting that its 15 member states agree to grant temporary residency permits to victims who testify against their traffickers or otherwise co-operate in the fight against the trade.

If adopted, convicted traffickers would face a minimum penalty of six years in prison, or ten years if ‘aggravating circumstances’ such as kidnapping, rape or assault occur. The latter classification would not apply if the trafficker had made “false promises” to the victim, who willingly entered into prostitution, he said.

“Our evaluation is that this instrument [temporary residency] is extremely important to commit the victims to co-operate with the police and the judicial authorities,” Vitorino told IPS, “because one of the most difficult problems we have in fighting these criminal methods is on one side the lack of harmonised [EU] legislation, but on the other side, the extreme difficulty of gathering evidence.”

He said that repressive measures against trafficking are “only one side of the coin; equally important is a strategy to provide assistance to and protection of their victims”.

Emphasising that trafficking for sexual exploitation was among the worst violations of human rights, Vitorino said that “EU member states must be equally willing to participate in the positive aspects of [helping] victims of these criminal organisations”.

The Commission says its proposal already goes considerably further than the UN protocol on trafficking in persons, which supplements the recently signed UN convention on transnational organised crime. The protocol lays down minimum standards, while the central objectives of the Commission proposal are also to set out more far reaching definitions and sanctions, as well as to provide for a rapid implementation of the UN protocol.

But Belgian Euro-Parliamentarian Patsy Sorenson, author of a comprehensive report on trafficking for the legislative body, is pushing for the Commission and EU member states to go a step further in the area of asylum. She wants the EU executive to ask member states to follow the lead of Belgium and Italy, both of which grant victims the right to stay indefinitely if they are willing to give evidence in court.

“There has to be an opportunity to give [persons who testify] a new identity as well ... so that their protection is assured and that they can begin a new life,” she said.

After the hearing, Diamantopoulou told IPS that she was favourable to Sorenson’s call to grant asylum or permanent residency status to victims who come forward, provided that member states agree to certain preconditions, such as reception centres that provide counselling and can help the women integrate into society.

“I very much support the idea, but there must be three preconditions: legislation, centres and social protection. Otherwise, if they only have the permanent residency status, they could be exploited again,” she said.

SUNS 4852, 12 Mar 2001