Saturday 18 October 2014

“If States do not step up their efforts, trafficking in human beings will increase in Europe”

Mr Nicolas Le Coz is President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), a multi-disciplinary and independent panel of fifteen experts of different nationalities responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings of 16 May 2005 by the 42 States which have ratified the Convention. GRETA has already published 35 country-by-country reports including the report on France dated 28 January 2013. On the occasion of the 8th European Anti-Trafficking Day, taking place on 18 October 2014, this interview, carried out by the Network “Together against Trafficking in Human Beings”, aims to outline the risk of seeing human trafficking increase if “Member States do not strengthen their efforts.”

Geneviève Colas: On the 8th European Anti-Trafficking Day, what is your feeling about this serious violation of human rights in Europe?
Nicolas le Coz: Concerning this serious form of criminality, which is as you rightly recall, a violation of human rights, two points must be mentioned. First of all, there is still no way of knowing the exact number of victims of trafficking in Europe because States have not yet put in place effective procedures for the identification of victims which would allow to pin down the exact number of victims. If we take the statistics issued by the European Union (EU), 24 000 victims of trafficking were identified between 2008 and 2010 in the 27 EU Member States. This figure is undoubtedly lower than reality.
Moreover, the real gravity of trafficking in human beings and the forms of exploitation deriving from it has not been systematically addressed either at a governmental level or by the media or citizens. Aside from the fact that it generates profits which regularly evade seizure and confiscation ordered by Courts, it results in intolerable attacks on the liberty and physical and mental integrity of thousands of children, women and men on the European continent.
Finally, there is still a lot of confusion regarding trafficking in human beings and exploitation. Too often, forced labour and undeclared labour as well as prostitution and exploitation of prostitution are conflated, which slows down the judicial process. It must therefore be said again and again that trafficking in human beings must not be mixed up with the smuggling of migrants. Three elements must be identified to characterize the crime of trafficking in human beings: the recruitment or transport with a view to, for example, placing the person in a situation of exploitation such as forced labour, exploitation of prostitution, or removal of organ. Of course, the victim is often unaware of the exploitation that is in store. Finally, it must be established that, for example, violence, fraud, or abuse of vulnerability have been used against the victim.
Furthermore, we must combat the myth of “fake victims” as no State which has put in place an efficient identification system has had to face a flow of persons pretending to be victims of trafficking. For this reason, proper identification procedures and adequate training for the relevant authorities are indispensable.

G.C: Why is the number of convictions for trafficking in human beings still so low in Member States?
N.L.C: Three reasons may explain this situation. To convict a trafficker, access to criminal justice without lengthy delays must be ensured.
However, beforehand, there must also be a clear political and judicial will to give top priority to the repression of trafficking and to ensuring that investigators and prosecutors are familiar with the different forms of trafficking in human beings and relevant legal texts. Next, sufficient evidence of the crime must be gathered, which means that investigators must have sufficient powers to find enough evidence to convince judges that traffickers are guilty, as well as witness testimony enabling investigators to search for evidence and reinforce the case against the traffickers.

GC: Exactly how may we ensure that we get victim testimony when there is a host of reasons which could make victims unable to testify?

NLC: In order for victims to agree to testify, they must be put in the best possible position in terms of protection and social, medical or legal assistance, as it is rare to achieve a conviction if the victim is absent from the procedure. When these conditions are not systematically met simultaneously, it is easy to see why conviction rates for the crime of trafficking in human beings are not as high as they should be or why the sentences are sometimes lenient.
This observation by GRETA has been corroborated by other organisations such as EUROJUST (European Union Judicial Cooperation Unit), which has indicated that it has been notified few criminal procedures based on the ground of trafficking in human beings.
Whatever it may entail, the protection of victims is a State obligation, alongside the repressive component against traffickers. This obligation comes from the Anti-Trafficking Convention, but may also be derived from the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Ransev v. Cyprus and Russia) of 7 January 2010.

GC. Do you not believe that progress has been made both generally and in relation to the management of victims of trafficking in human beings?

NLC: If real progress has been made, this does not mean it has been in an equal and harmonious manner, that it is sufficient, that it touches on all four aspects of the fight against trafficking, i.e. the prevention of trafficking, the punishment of traffickers, the protection of victims and cooperation between State bodies and between States themselves. And yet, if nothing is done for victims, you will not have efficient investigations, and none or hardly any convictions. You will especially have intolerable situations of trafficking and exploitation which will continue to flourish in European countries, affecting those who are the most vulnerable.
For victims to enjoy the rights that are guaranteed in laws or regulations, victims must be identified and informed of what they are entitled to. By way of example, the recovery and reflection period must be given to non-nationals and those of irregular status who may then reside in a national territory without being deported. Victims are rarely informed of this right. Where they are informed of it, they are told they may only benefit from it if they cooperate with the investigation. This practice goes absolutely against the Anti-Trafficking Convention which stipulates that this recovery period should be of at least 30 days, making it a transition period during which victims must be assisted, supported, accommodated and informed of possible next steps. Admittedly the investigation continues and the victim may be heard but not as if she or he were a real party to the procedure.
Moreover, the compensation of victims is still all too rare and dependent on the traffickers being convicted. However, when traffickers have not been convicted, when they have escaped justice or have hidden their criminal assets, this will result in the victim never being compensated. The State should guarantee that compensation is paid. There is also wholly insufficient protection of victims against reprisals and criminal proceedings are generally not designed in a way to ensure it efficiently.

It is surprising that at a time when public authorities have begun to understand that the seizure and confiscation of the proceeds of crime is indispensable, as part of the efforts to sanction traffickers, for the compensation of victims as well as for the budget of the state, that more emphasis has not been given to it. Money is the principal motivation of traffickers and their first purpose is the exploitation of persons, to make them work and exploit them like machines.

GC: What is the role given to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which help victims of trafficking in other European States?

NLC: The Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Convention is the only international legal instrument which recognises the role played by NGOs in helping victims of human trafficking and accordingly sets out obligations for States.

States Delegations which negotiated the text between 2003 and 2005 were not being demagogic but simply pragmatic. Given that NGOs detect victims, sometimes after months of outreach work, it is only logical that these organisations are supported by states, consulted on the development of national policies against human trafficking and associated with anti-trafficking action of the state and its agencies. Once again, it is not to say that NGOs should be considered as part of the authorities: each has its own part to play. However, it is neither fair nor efficient to ignore the work carried out by NGOs nor to avoid involving them when it comes to devising policies in which they will de facto take part. It is for this reason that GRETA has welcomed, on many occasions, initiatives aiming to involve NGOs with the identification of victims, to create working links between investigators and NGOs, and to have NGOs participate in work undertaken within national structures that coordinate the implementation of the Anti-Trafficking Convention by states parties.

GC: How has the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings advanced the fight against trafficking?
NLC: The Anti-Trafficking Convention has already become a point of reference when it comes to efficient action to combat human trafficking, because it contains a range of clear, efficient and precise obligations. Take for instance the anti-trafficking Directive of the European Union of 2011, the Arabic Strategy on action against trafficking in human beings of 2012 and the Addendum to the OSCE (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe) Action Plan to combat Trafficking in Human Beings of 2013, it is easy to see that they have adopted for the most part the same standards as the Convention and that the Convention has served as a standard. The Convention and GRETA reports have been recognised as tools for analysing national situations and their virtues as well as flaws.
Secondly, the Convention emphasises not only the importance of putting in place a repressive arsenal but in particular the need to support victims, based on the inherent obligations of European states to protect human rights as well as to ensure favourable circumstances for victims to be in a position to testify.

GC: In conclusion, what awaits us in the future?
NLC: At a European and international level, we must hope that the Convention continues to be ratified, particularly by non-member States of the Council of Europe, because the Convention is meant to go beyond this framework. Once obligations from the Convention are shared, more judicial cooperation will take place, more traffickers will be convicted and more victims will be identified, protected, compensated, and rehabilitated. It is imperative that States which have been monitored by GRETA meet their responsibilities and implement the recommendations contained in its reports. In ratifying the Convention, they commit themselves to implement its obligations and comply with the GRETA’s recommendations. Ignoring these obligations constitutes an undeniable breach of European law and can engage the international responsibility of States.
Finally, every form of trafficking in human beings must be combatted, notably slavery, forced labour and its components such as exploitation of begging, forced crime and the removal of human organs. Moreover, a human-rights approach respectful of the best interests of victims must guide the actions of states and their officials at all times. We must not only combat the different forms of trafficking but also take into account their context: traffickers are united by a common contempt of humanity and a ferocious appetite for profits.
The second round of evaluation of the implementation of the Convention was launched in Spring 2014 and will verify whether States are conforming or not to their obligations.

The 8th European Anti-Trafficking Day is an opportunity to remember that we need a great leap on the part of Member States because if they do not step up their efforts, there is a real risk that human trafficking will intensify in Europe, at an unacceptable human cost. The economic crisis should not be an excuse to fold our arms; on the contrary, it is still fertile ground for profit for traffickers. It is a paramount obligation on states to protect human rights.


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