Wednesday, October 19, 2016

10th EU Anti Trafficking Day. A Call for Action

The 18th of October is the 10th EU Anti Trafficking day. This day is an opportunity to reflect on our anti-trafficking policies and a call for more targeted action. Last Tuesday, as General Secretary of the European Parliament Working Group on Human Dignity, I was involved in organizing an event on Human Dignity with the title "Combating Human Trafficking”. It was a very fruitful meeting that showed that there is substantial interest across political groups in the European Parliament on this issue. The event was hosted by MEPs Bastiaan Belder (ECR, Chair of the Steering Committe of the Working Group) and Diane Dodds (NA). Keynote speakers were: Lord Maurice Morrow (Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly) who tabled the latest law on prostitution in Northern Ireland based on criminalizing the client, Maria Vassiliadou, (EU anti-trafficking coordinator) and Frits Rouvoet (Director of Brightfame Foundation) who helps prostitutes in Amsterdam to leave prostitution. Besides, other MEPs of the working group contributed actively to this meeting. All participants agreed that efforts must be stepped up on a national and EU - level in order to stop this modern slavery. 

The meeting was moderated and hosted by MEP Diane Dodds. Mrs Dodds noted in her opening remarks that the event coincides with the annual EU Anti-Trafficking day and that trafficking is now recognized by governments around Europe as a major trans-border challenge. In the UK, the Home Office estimates that around 13000 persons are enslaved across the country. She also made special reference to a recent case in Northern Ireland where it was revealed that a trafficker who was eventually brought to justice had imprisoned his victims and kept them in inhuman conditions. Mrs Dodds underlined that "We must recognize that by their nature these injustices cross borders and transcend societies. They give no thought to political differences. There is therefore an onus on governments, authorities and civil society across European societies to work together, share best practice and give a robust commitment to bringing forward solutions".

Bastiaan Belder underlined that "As a Christian, I believe that in order to fight trafficking, we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ who did not condemn sinners but helped them change their lives through his love". He also called on the participants to imagine how they would react if members of their own families were victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution. MEP Belder finally underlined the biblical notion that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate inspiration for our struggle against all forms of abuse of human lives. Based on the message of Mr Belder, I am even more convinced that prostitutes should not be easily condemned but they need to be supported to get out of prostitution and make a new start in their lives.

"If we want to understand human trafficking, we need to ask ourselves who profits  from the exploitation of others", said Myria Vassiliadou (EU Anti - Trafficking Corrdinator). She noted that it is very positive that there is a wide consensus in the European Parliament that the EU has a positive contribution on this issue. Additionally, she underlined that trafficking is a serious form of organized crime and a fundamental rights violation, mentioning the findings of the first Report on progress in the fight against trafficking in human beings. The report finds that in 2013-2014, 15,846 women, men, girls and boys were registered as victims of trafficking in the EU. Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the most widespread form (67% of registered victims), followed by trafficking for labour exploitation (21% of registered victims). Over three quarters of the registered victims were women (76%), while at least 15% were children.

Mrs Vassiliadou added that the refugee crisis worsened the situation as refugees are being exploited by criminal networks. She insisted that our focus on a European level should shift in following the money and addressing the demand for all forms of exploitation using existing tools such as the comprehensive Anti-Trafficking Directive. The Directive obliges MSs to take action in order to reduce the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation and calls for MSs to consider criminalizing of the use of "sexual services" with the knowledge that the provider of these services is a victim of human trafficking. 

Lord Maurice Morrow shared valuable insights of his experience as author of the 2015 Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill in Northern Ireland, a law that criminalized the purchase of sexual services. The Bill is a substantive piece of legislation as it is the product of a thorough consultation process with the local government and non-government organizations. Now an Act, the law has three main aspirations; to criminalize the purchase of "sexual services", to protect and provide support to the victims, and most importantly to reduce demand for "sexual services". As Lord Morrow characteristically underlined: "[with this law] ideally, our society will become a very hostile place to those who would seek to abuse and exploit others through the crime of human trafficking"

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill introduced new human trafficking offences in Northern Ireland which aim to make it easier to successfully prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking offences. Additionally, it sets out that those found guilty of human trafficking offences should be sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison, criminalizing the purchase of "sexual services" in Northern Ireland while at the same time, decriminalizing those who provide "sexual services" for payment. Moreover, several provisions to offer support to the victims of human trafficking were introduced. For example, they can make use of special measures to give evidence in court, a process that is very difficult for them due to the trauma they have been through.

Lord Morrow also mentioned the introduction of independent guardians for unaccompanied migrant children. The aim is to help some of the most vulnerable children by helping them deal with the bureaucratic processes they have to go through and to ensure that trafficked children are at less risk of being re-trafficked. He also made special reference to a similar piece of legislation that is expected to come into force in the Republic of Ireland in the near future "making the whole of Ireland a very hostile place for human trafficking"

Frits Rouvoet shared his experience from the work of Brightfame Foundation, an organization that supports women in prostitution and helps them make a new start in their lives. He characteristically said: "These women have no dreams, they don't know what to do" emphasizing the fact that they need urgent solutions and the help they receive from the State is not adequate and often does not arrive in time. Finally, he argued that the use of "sexual services" should be criminalized again in the Netherlands and at the same time, efforts to help and support trafficked women should be stepped up. He also introduced a trailer of the well-known Dutch documentary "Jojanneke in de Prostitutie" that was produced by Jojanneke van den Berge. This documentary revealed the shocking realities of the Dutch red-light district.

Contributions by members of the Working Group

MEP Alojz Peterle (EPP) noted that a "legislative approach is necessary in the fight against human trafficking, but not at all enough. It is a problem that concerns first and foremost the victims and also society as a whole, a special issue that requires a lot of attention and personal engagement"

"We must join our forces to strongly fight against trafficking in human beings which undermines human dignity in its very essence. I call on wide European cooperation in prevention of these horrible crimes and strong protection of victims", underlined MEP Miroslav Mikolasik (EPP), chairman of the EPP Working Group on Bioethics and Human Dignity. 

MEP Arne Gericke (ECR) argued for the criminalization of the purchasing of "sexual services" saying that, given the damage of the purchase of sexual services causes to trafficking victims, "is their sentencing in two and a half years' imprisonment enough?

MEP Marek Jurek (ECR) supported the view that in order to combat human trafficking, we will always have to remind to ourselves and to others that "the freedom and sexual dignity of every person are inalienable human rights". He added that "we cannot legally accept any exploitation of prostitutes" and argued for the criminalization of the purchasing of "sexual services".

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