Not for Sale: Protecting the Victims of Human Trafficking in Europe and Canada

The conference Not For Sale: Protecting the Victims of Human Trafficking in Europe and Canada, held on October 16, was organized jointly by the Embassies of Switzerland and Austria, in collaboration with the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. The idea to provide this platform for discussion was based on the Swiss Chairmanship of the OSCE and the Austrian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe in 2014 – both organizations are very active in the fight against human trafficking.

The conference aimed to bring awareness to the phenomenon of human trafficking, in particular to the treatment of victims of trafficking. Academic researchers, policy makers and non-governmental organizations from Canada and Europe were brought together, to give voice to the trauma faced by victims of trafficking and to identify best practices with respect to offering victims the assistance they need. This document summarizes conclusions and recommendations, in three parts: 1) the fight to prevent/eradicate human trafficking; 2) the protection of and assistance to victims of human trafficking; 3) the right to reside for victims of human trafficking.

1)      The fight to prevent and eradicate human trafficking

Canada and Europe are both prioritizing the fight against human trafficking, yet there are multiple ongoing challenges in doing so.  One major challenge stems from identifying victims of trafficking, since they are often reluctant to come forward and/or do not self-identify as victims of trafficking.  Another major challenge stems from the fact that there is no one type of “victim” of trafficking: men, women and children are all trafficked, into a range of “employments”, including sex, construction, domestic, agriculture, service and so on.  Canada in particular is struggling to distinguish domestic from foreign victims of trafficking.  As the OSCE observed, identifying victims across these industries and ensuring that they are reintegrated into society requires a range of distinct strategies, but what these strategies should be remains poorly understood.

There is no one magical solution to ending trafficking. One major goal is to train law enforcement officers (police officers, courts, border control agents, etc.) to better identify victims of trafficking.  A second goal is to increase the penalties for convicted traffickers, which itself is a challenge because there is a lack of consensus on what these penalties should be. Yet, speakers agreed that at present, trafficking is largely a riskless crime; traffickers are difficult to apprehend and face few penalties when they are apprehended. Many speakers agreed that countries should be encouraged to confiscate the assets of convicted traffickers, thus making it less attractive to become a trafficker and to deprive them of the financial means to run their business.

Recommendations:

  • Better training for law enforcement officers to identify victims.
  • Make trafficking a riskier crime by raising penalties and targeting financial assets.

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2)      Protection of and assistance to victims of human trafficking

Recent policy in Canada and Europe aims to avoid re-victimizing the victims of human trafficking, by actively aiming to avoid criminalizing them.  Measures to prevent and eradicate human trafficking thus focus on protecting victims, on protecting their human rights, rather than punishing them as wrongdoers. Yet, even though there is widespread agreement that doing so is essential, offering victims adequate protection faces many challenges, and measures are not always adapted, especially in the case of male victims. The goal of avoiding the punishment of victims is made difficult by the fact that many victims of trafficking themselves transition into the role of trafficker, often as a way to pay debts to their traffickers.

Law enforcement authorities struggle to combat trafficking. This is why coherent national referral mechanisms for victims and key strategic partnerships are important, as the Council of Europe stresses. Combating trafficking is more effective where law enforcement agencies partner with civil society actors, who can offer essential services to victims. In particular, victims of trafficking suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and require considerable aid in reintegrating into society, which civil society organizations are often well-placed to offer. Additionally, where these services are offered, victims are more likely to participate in the prosecution of traffickers. In addition to offering services to victims to ease their transition out of trafficking, victims may be entitled to some sort of restitution, but the best way to offer this restitution remains under discussion.

One domain in which it is especially important to protect victims of trafficking is with respect to health care.  Victims of trafficking typically suffer from ill health, both physical and mental, and any strategy intending to protect them must also protect their access to high quality health care.

Recommendations:

  • In addition to protecting the rights of victims in general, emphasis should be placed on providing adequate health care to victims of trafficking. 
  • Encourage strategic partnerships between law enforcement and civil society organizations.

See also:


3)      Victims of trafficking and the right to reside

The IOM suggests that among the best ways to protect the victims of human trafficking is to issue them temporary resident permits (TRPs), which may provide them with the motivation they need to seek help and assist authorities in prosecuting traffickers. Canada and many European countries offer temporary residence permits to acknowledged victims of trafficking. Too often, however, these permits are offered, or extended beyond the initial permit, only in cases where victims are willing to testify in court against traffickers. This requirement undermines the ability of temporary residence permits to truly protect victims of trafficking. Victims in particular suffer from the apparent arbitrary issuance of these permits as well as the arbitrary issuance of their renewals. These TRPs are rarely transferable into permanent status.

Recommendations:

  • Make process for securing and renewing TRPs clear and efficient. 
  • Avoid requiring testimony from victims in exchange for securing residence rights. 
  • Generate a clear mechanism by which temporary residence can transition to permanent residence.

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