Sunday, 17 January 2021

UN in your language

Interview with Eva Biaudet

Eva OSCEFinnish Ombudsman for Minorities and National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking
Former OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in human beings

UNRIC: Let’s talk about trafficking in general to begin with. Are there any particular similarities or differences between the European countries regarding human trafficking?

E.B: The striking fact is how similar the conditions actually are. It might be difficult to believe on a national level. There is so much we should learn from others experiences – good and bad. The “that would never happen in our country” –type of thinking is very common, but as soon as you give in to it, you are walking on thin ice. Most aspects linked to trafficking – criminality, recruitment, exploitation – are very similar in all countries. What is also similar is how difficult it is for national authorities to recognize and identify the victims. These similarities exist on all levels.

A good example is from research conducted in Britain, where they have studied “the culture of disbelief” effect. We tend to think that such things could not happen, or that this person certainly must be tricking me since the story is just too cruel or amazing to be true. This is a great hindrance in combating trafficking.
I have been very clear towards the Finnish authorities regarding the importance of collaborating with peers in neighbouring countries. Police, social authorities… they all need to cooperate in their work. Everything that exists or occurs elsewhere is taking, or might take place, in one’s own country as well. It is, after all, not about the actual transportation of victims, it is about the overall cruel exploitation and restriction of freedom of persons in vulnerable situations. Actual slavery still exists – it is all about the absolute power than one person exercises over another, and it is irrelevant how, or when, the victim ended up in this position – the essential thing is to provide aid and assistance. However, the first criterion for providing assistance and protection is that you actually have something to give. We are talking about major conflicts of political interest when aiding victims. The political debate regarding irregular immigration is a very hot topic, and the identification of victims as actual victims of trafficking and not just illegal immigrants is a challenge. Lack of effective anti-trafficking measures, including protection of victims and successful prosecution of perpetrators, signals a free passage for the criminals. The profits can be enormous.

UNRIC: EU’s immigration policy and the entry in to force of Schengen are aspects often mentioned when discussing trafficking. Your views on this?

E.B: Lack of immigration policies are naturally creating space for traffickers and smugglers. We should have the guts to discuss it more openly. The tendency of all Member States is that they would like to hand pick their immigrants, but this is of course utterly impossible. In Europe we should acknowledge the potential of all human beings. Education, work and safety is key for development.  Immigration should also be examined with a gender perspective in mind. Immigration paths are very male dominated, even though women constitute the majority of immigrants. Women also migrate at greater risk than men. If migrating is made nearly impossible in legal ways, people will put their lives in the hands of all kinds of people willing to assist them and also exploit and harm them, and at worst, the result may be human trafficking.
When it comes to tightening migration laws, we have to ask ourselves what the different consequences are. How will we address exploitation or violence against migrants? In Belgium there is, additionally to the legislation on human trafficking, also legislation addressing exploitation and violence against smuggling victims.  This means migrants may be identified as victims of serious crimes, contrary to many countries where these victims tend to be seen only as illegal immigrants, and solely accountable for illegal entry.

UNRIC: So identifying the victims remains a challenge?

E.B: All countries face the same situation – victims of trafficking are not recognized or identified well enough. Those countries, or those authorities, with more experience in anti-trafficking work may do better. But rarely good enough and all face a learning process. In the end, it is of most importance to simultaneously diminish demand, to decrease markets of exploitation. To be aware of what human trafficking means for the victims will, for most people, change the way they look at exploitation in the sex trade, for example. But also for the law enforcement authorities there is still a long way to go. When traffickers actually are charged with crimes, they are usually charged with a milder offence than human trafficking. So the clandestine nature of this criminality works two ways. On the one hand, criminals get better at avoiding law-enforcement and disguising their activity in seemingly legal frameworks, and on the other hand victims are not properly identified even when they have come forward. The resources for police investigations also clearly correlate with the numbers of identifications and court cases, as has been shown in the reports of the Dutch National Rapporteur of human trafficking, Mrs Corinne Dettmeijer.  Traffickers are ALSO quick to adapt, and international crime is attracted by areas in which it is easy to operate. The more you try to catch them, the more they hide. But this is not a phenomenon that is linked only to trafficking, this is common to all types of crime.

UNRIC: This brings us to the next question – criminalization of procurement of sexual services. Is the Swedish model effective or not?

E.B: Well, in general, I would say attitudes against exploitation, the position of women in society and of course, the existence of social exclusion and poverty, are strong denominators in either increasing or decreasing exploitation and efforts against it. You have societies where prostitution is prohibited and banned by law, but where it is still extremely common and flagrant because it seems to be socially tolerated as part of some kind of macho culture. In countries with social injustice the exploitation is inherent, and a good breeding ground for criminality as well. So criminalizing buying another person is foremost a signal of society’s moral code, focusing more on the actor who is supporting this horrendous criminality, and can actually avoid making life easy for pimps and traffickers. In the Nordic countries, the general climate towards prostitution has been very negative and buying sex has not been socially accepted. No one should be compelled, by circumstances or by others, to sell themselves. That’s the sociopolitical ideology that lies behind. Criminalization does have an effect, yes, but there are numerous other factors involved as well. But yes, I think criminalization creates a social norm that states that buying sex is simply not ok. It is also generally accepted today that legalizing and licensing prostitution has not helped in our fight against human trafficking and exploitation. It is important also to remember that many victims are irregulars, i.e. illegally staying in the country. No licensing system could ever legalize their positions.

UNRIC: What about the so called spill-over effect – traffickers just moving their business away from a country that criminalizes procurement and continuing it elsewhere?

E.B: Of course transnational and international cooperation is needed, and the root causes to the problem often remain international. But you cannot reason like this when fighting crime. It would be like saying: “oh, well, if we make drugs illegal, they will just sell them in some other country”. Of course the traffickers always adapt and some of the operations might be moved to another country, but this is true for all law enforcement activities. Legislation is first national, stemming from international agreements and obligations, such as the Council of Europe’s convention on anti-trafficking. Eventually, and hopefully, we will all become better at stopping this crime. Naturally the challenge is to be a step ahead of the criminals. And criminals find new ways of hiding their crime. Victims often do not view themselves as victims. Traffickers take ruthless advantage of criminalizing the victim itself, especially with children,. Children are often exploited in areas of petty crime, thefts, begging and so on. They are told that if they dare go to the police, they will be locked up and sentenced as criminals, because “that’s what they are”. And they believe it, thus avoiding any contact with authorities, not realizing that they themselves are the actual victims. These children may have been abused all their lives. They do not know of any other way of living.
When thinking about traffickers, we might have too strong a picture in our heads of American mafia-like criminal characters, but very often one has to deal with very basic, very ordinary cruel threats and robbing of freedom. The victim is threatened and scared to the point where she or he does not see any way out and is unable to reach out for help.

UNRIC: Any particular success stories that come to mind in combating trafficking?

E.B: The fact that individual responsibility regarding demand is now a topic up for debate is in itself a success story. Whether it will end as a success story remains to be seen, but this is an extremely important question of general attitude and it must be recognised. You have to build the mechanisms that enable people to talk about what is ok to do to other people and what is not. There must be social codes that protect people from being exploited.

Regarding individual cases, when speaking of success stories, well, each individual case where someone has been helped or rescued is one. Each person who has been saved is a success and I have had the pleasure of meeting persons who have been victims of trafficking, who now lead normal lives. Of course the sexual violence is so extremely traumatizing, and leaves such deep scars, that you never can be rid of them completely, but you learn to live with them.

When fighting against human trafficking, I would also like to highlight the Finnish case where the system of having a National Rapporteur brings combating trafficking to the next level. The duties of a NR are not only to collect numbers, data and statistics. The NR analyses the gathered information and the anti-trafficking measures taken, and identifies gaps and challenges. Focus must be on the rights of the victims in every step of the investigations. The NR should be independent and transparent in dialogue with decision makers in parliament. Two trafficking reports have now been completed and submitted, the first in 2010 to the parliament and the second in 2011 to the Finnish government. (Both can be found at the website; UNRIC remark). Two ministries have appointed working groups to improve legislation according to recommendations of the NR and hence of parliament. The police are finalizing their guidelines for better identification procedures, and the labour protection inspectorate is processing theirs.  

UNRIC: Are there any especially critical aspects regarding trafficking that you would like to mention?

E.B: Perhaps the fact that every aspect of trafficking needs to be dealt with. Now, the focus in Europe tends to be on exploitation in labour. This is of course important but must not take away actions against all kinds of exploitative activities, including the sex trade. Prostitution is such a complex and difficult subject to deal with, that it tends to be avoided altogether. Children get sympathy, but prostitutes are seen as undeserving victims in many eyes. Anyone in Europe without proper documentation is easy prey for traffickers, and sex trafficking should not become a forgotten story. I agree with the EU coordinator against human trafficking, Ms Myria Vassiliadou, who recently pointed out that there sometimes is a feeling of “said that, done that” when raising the issues of exploitation in the sex trade and human trafficking.

UNRIC: Any last comments or thoughts you would like to share with the In Focus readers?

E.B: No society is immune to human trafficking. But we are unprepared for reality. There is also a prevailing attitude of “if you were dumb enough to get you into that situation in the first place, then deal with it”. This is of course horribly wrong, especially regarding children no matter what crime they have committed on behalf of their traffickers. Absolutely nothing justifies the kind of treatment that victims of trafficking are subjected to. We need to wake up and clean our own backyards. Each individual is also responsible, whether speaking of prostitution or forced labour. Anyone using the services of a person in prostitution can’t be sure that the person isn’t a victim of trafficking or other severe exploitation, and the prostitution scene is incredibly hard and raw – also in Finland. The same applies to strip clubs. When speaking about fighting exploitation and trafficking in labour, a good thing, though, is that countries and companies are becoming more and more aware of their social and ethical responsibilities. Increased public awareness regarding company ethics and their use of labour in the whole supply chain is putting pressure on them, making them more accountable, and in this way, helping to combat trafficking in human beings.

Background: Eva Biaudet is an international leader on women’s rights and anti-trafficking efforts. Former OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, currently Finnish Ombudsman for Minorities and Finnish National Rapporteur on Trafficking, her reports examine trafficking from diverse perspectives, identifying vulnerabilities in all areas of the government’s anti-trafficking program and recommending policy changes. Under Ms. Biaudet’s guidance, the rapporteur’s office has not only been a reviewer of Finland’s trafficking situations, but has led efforts to train authorities on victim assistance. It has collaborated with the media to ensure that human trafficking remains a matter of public concern. Ms. Biaudet’s leadership of this independent institution sets the tone and raises the standard for countries’ self-monitoring of trafficking efforts.

Linda Eriksson Baca on human trafficking in the European countries


What is human trafficking?

•    An estimated 2.5 million people are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking.
•    161 countries are reported to be affected by human trafficking by being a source, transit or destination country.
•    The majority of trafficking victims are between 18 and 24 years of age
•    An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year
•    Many trafficking victims have at least middle-level education
•    In 54% of cases the recruiter was a stranger to the victim, 46% of cases the recruiter was known to victim
•    Sexual exploitation is noted as by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79%) followed by forced labour (18%).
•    Other forms of exploitation are: forced or bonded labour, domestic servitude, formed marriage, organ removal and the exploitation of children in begging, the sex trade and warfare
•    Estimated global annual profits made from the exploitation of all trafficked forced labour are US$ 31.6 billion
•    In 2006, there were only 5,808 prosecutions and 3,160 convictions throughout the world. This means that for every 800 people trafficked, only one person was convicted.
•    In 2011, the European Union adopted a Directive to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings and protect its victims.   


International Labour Organization, Forced Labour Statistics Factsheet (2007)
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns (Vienna, 2006)
International Organization for Migration, Counter-Trafficking Database, 78 Countries, 1999-2006 (1999)
UNICEF, UK Child Trafficking Information Sheet (January 2003)
International Labour Organization, Forced Labour Statistics Factsheet (2007)  
International Organization for Migration, Counter-Trafficking Database, 78 Countries, 1999-2006 (1999)
International Organization for Migration, Counter-Trafficking Database, 78 Countries, 1999-2006 (1999)
Patrick Besler, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits, working paper (Geneva, International
Labour Office, 2005)
US State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report (2007) p.36