Delegation of the European Union to the Holy See,
Order of Malta, UN Organisations in Rome
and to the Republic of San Marino

Tackling human trafficking: more urgent than ever in COVID times

18/10/2020 - 07:00
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On EU anti-trafficking day in human beings, the European Union reaffirms its commitment to protect victims, support survivors and prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking

With only a few days to go before the European Commission presents its ‘2020 Report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings’, today we mark the 14th EU Anti-Trafficking Day. Human trafficking, according to figures from recent reports, is still a pervasive, and often invisible, reality. And the current COVID-19 crisis only creates aggravated circumstances for vulnerable people to fall victim of sex trafficking, forced labour or other forms of human exploitation.

“As criminals continue to make huge profits from exploiting their victims, we need to increase our efforts in prevention, investigation, prosecution and conviction of human traffickers”, said Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, in a EU statement to mark the date. “The early identification of victims will be a specific theme of the Commission’s forthcoming approach towards the eradication of human trafficking, as set out in the recent Security Union Strategy”.

Under COVID-19, the root causes leading to human trafficking have been exacerbated, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and several civil society organisations. Financial hardship on families, limited labour protections, closing of schools, mass movements of people and an increasing lack of social or economic opportunities may lead to a further development of human trafficking networks. Besides, they point out that the massive increase in the use of digital technologies during the pandemic may make children more vulnerable to online sexual predators. 

“Children constitute nearly a quarter of all victims in the EU, most of them girls. They are trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour, and criminal activities”, said Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson. “Nearly three quarters of all victims in the EU are female, who are trafficked for all forms of exploitation, experiencing violence and inequality. All victims of trafficking need early intervention and support”.

Despite EU efforts to eradicate this scourge from our societies, much work remains to be done. According to the European Commission´s ‘Second Report on the progress made…’ (published in December 2018), 20,532 men, women and children were registered as victims of trafficking in the EU in 2015-2016, a number that may be far from reality since many victims remain undetected. However, the level of prosecutions and convictions is still low, with 5,979 prosecutions and 2,927 convictions reported within that period, and only 18 individuals convicted for knowingly using services provided by victims. 

Trafficking in human beings is a violation of fundamental rights, and is explicitly prohibited under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In 2011, the EU adopted an Anti-trafficking Directive that put forward a victim-centred, gender-specific and child-sensitive approach to address trafficking in human beings, establishing robust provisions on victims' protection, assistance and support, as well as on prevention and prosecution of the crime.

In December 2017, a Communication establishing a set of priorities stepped up the EU Action to address trafficking in human beings. The Commission urged Member States to focus on improving data collection, countering the culture of impunity, promoting a coordinated response and ensuring victims' access to justice in order to effectively combat human trafficking.

Under the Anti-Trafficking Directive, EU Member States must report to the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator (currently Mr. Olivier Onidi, appointed in March 2020), who is responsible for improving coordination and coherence among EU institutions, EU agencies, Member States and international actors, and for developing existing and new EU policies to address human trafficking. He also contributes to the Commission's bi-annual progress report.

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