Coordinated efforts against human trafficking, the third-largest illegal activity in the world

July 11, 2019
Human Trafficking Stop Illegal

Human trafficking affects an estimated 12 million victims around the world, more than half of whom are women and girls. Smuggling is mostly driven by profit and is considered a modern form of slavery, as it may involve sexual exploitation together with forced labor. The United Nations estimates the total market revenue of human trafficking at US$32 billion, making it the third-largest illegal activity in the world, after drug and arms trafficking. 

After many years of ignoring the growing problem of human trafficking, governments and international organizations finally began to address the issue in the early 2000s. In November 2000, two international protocols were adopted: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea. These represented a huge milestone in an ambitious effort to address the exploitation of people. 

The protocols define human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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 and benefits to achieve the consent of a person, having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

Tackling Human Trafficking

The United Nations Protocol against Trafficking in Persons came into being in 2003. It was the foremost agreement in this area and the first to efficiently tackle the multinational issue; nevertheless, countries have often ignored it. A survey launched in 2009 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that 26 countries in the world had set up a bureau to systematically collect and disseminate data on trafficking cases. In 2018, this number had risen to 65; a welcome increase that highlights political willpower and the need for coordination at all levels. According to Frontex's Deputy Director Berndt Körner: “Trafficking in human beings is a global problem that requires a coordinated response. […] together with other EU agencies, we are committed to continue fighting against this crime with all our available means.” 

Countries are indeed at the center of detection and punishment, as pointed out by the UNODC in 2018: “Enhanced national capacity to detect victims could be achieved through strengthened institutional efforts to combat trafficking including legislative reforms, coordination among national actors, special law enforcement capacities and improved victim protection efforts, to mention some.”

In recent years, major efforts have been made to curb human trafficking. It became one of Europol’s (the E.U.’s law enforcement agency) main priorities in crime areas via the EMPACT project, which sets European priorities under the 2018-2021 E.U. Policy Cycle.

During the migrant crisis, which saw its peak in 2015, European countries also turned to Frontex to protect their borders. Unable to manage the relentless waves of people trying to cross borders, often at the cost of their lives, the EU turned to a technological response. It recently funded a project based on automated drones controlled by artificial intelligence (Roborder) to improve the detection of human trafficking. It was one of the many detection devices deployed by European countries. 

If this multiform response has been adopted, it’s also because of the shape-shifting nature of human trafficking. As part of their analysis, governments and international organizations established that trafficking in persons is highly adaptive to local context and also covers two different realities: trafficking in human beings and the smuggling of migrants. 

Trafficking in persons: a huge matter of concern

Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the most common form of trafficking globally, although this pattern is not consistent across all regions. In 2016, it represented 59 percent of the victims documented by UNODC. Forced labor represented 34 percent of documented victims, while 7 percent were trafficked for other purposes.

Victim profiles also change according to the form of trafficking. Men and women are largely trafficked for different forms of exploitation. While 83 percent of the female victims in 2016 were trafficked for sexual exploitation, 82 percent of the men were trafficked for forced labor. Conversely, 10 percent of the documented male victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation, while 13 percent of the women were trafficked for forced labor. In addition, there are other forms of exploitation, like trafficking for the removal of organs. But this seems to be very limited in terms of numbers of detected victims, as only about 100 were documented by the UNODC between 2014 and 2017.

It must be noted that contrary to common opinion, human trafficking is not only a transnational crime. In a departure from prior global report editions, data shows that victims within their own national borders account for the larger part of the victims documented worldwide. This finding shows that the crime of trafficking in persons has to be addressed as a priority in all national jurisdictions. 

Conflicts cause an increase in human trafficking

In conflict situations, characterized by violence, brutality and coercion, traffickers can operate with great impunity. This is the reason why trafficking in armed conflicts has become so widespread. In this matter, the UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018 shows that wars and local conflicts tend to increase trafficking in persons. Indeed, they are more likely to amplify its prevalence and severity.

Some forms of exploitation have thus been identified as specific to the context of warfare. According to research on exploitative practices in conflict settings, women and girls are more prone to sexual exploitation by members of armed and terrorist groups. At the same time, children are also likely to be used as soldiers, while enslavement can be used as an act of terrorism and as a tactic to suppress ethnic minorities’ removal. Last, removal of organs can be used to cure wounded fighters or to finance war.

Migrant smuggling: the other side of the coin

Recent conflicts in the Middle East have drawn public attention to migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea and the trafficking in persons coming from the southern shore to reach European countries. Every year, thousands of migrants and refugees, desperately seeking to escape violence, conflict and dire economic straits, die on perilous journeys by land, sea or air, often at the hands of criminal smugglers.

At least 2.5 million migrants were smuggled in 2016 worldwide, according to the first Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants released by UNODC. The traffic generated an income of up to US$7 billion, equivalent to what the United States and the European Union countries spent on global humanitarian aid in 2016. 

A report published by Europol in 2016 showed that more than 90 percent of migrants coming to the EU are facilitated by members of criminal networks. According to the publication, these migrant smuggling networks have proven flexible and resilient, adapting to law enforcement action by constantly changing and diversifying routes. Migrant smugglers also appear to be linked with other criminal activities. It is a multinational business, with suspects originating from more than 100 countries both inside and outside the EU. 

A convergence of tobacco smuggling and human trafficking routes

Human trafficking is not necessarily a solo business. As highlighted by operations led by Italian police in early 2019, when 15 suspected members of a criminal organization that smuggled people and cigarettes from Tunisia to Sicily were arrested, the authorities are detecting a convergence of illicit tobacco smuggling and human trafficking activities. And this situation is not specific to the Mediterranean area. Such activity has been detected at the border between the United States and Mexico too. In a report published in 2017 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) explains that “the same transnational criminal organizations that smuggle narcotics and humans into the United States generate additional revenue streams by legitimately purchasing low-cost duty-free cigarettes and other items in the United States and smuggling them into Mexico.”

At the end of 2018, in Brazil, the Civil Police of Calafate was able to shut down a clandestine cigarette factory where 11 Paraguayan workers were found working in slave-like conditions. In May 2019, in the Philippines, the “National Bureau of Investigation rescued 87 workers from a warehouse where they have been detained and reportedly forced to manufacture fake cigarettes”.

Human trafficking in all of its forms, and its intersections with other forms of crime, is a calamity that goes beyond a single country, region or continent, and exceeds the control of a single government. Cooperation between different law enforcement agencies, and even between nations, as proven by the above-mentioned EU initiatives, is the right path towards the eradication of this scourge. 


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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