Human Trafficking in the EU: Nothing Less Than Modern-Day Slavery

Roxana Stanciu
April 20, 2017

  Roxana Stanciu


According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime: “People trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are enslaved, the fastest growing international crime, and one of the largest sources of income for organized crime.” The UN also estimates that worldwide, trafficking in human beings is the second biggest source of illicit profits after the drugs trade.

With this in mind, on October 18, 2016, the EU organized the 10th EU Anti-Trafficking Day, with several high-profile events held in Brussels. Politicians, NGOs, and EU Member States participated in the event in order to raise awareness of the ongoing trafficking and exploitation of human beings.


European actions toward establishing a framework

For years, European bodies have been seeking ways to better address the issue. One outcome was the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which entered into force in February 2008. It provided a human rights perspective on trafficking and strengthening the protections afforded to victims. In 2011, the legal and policy framework to better address human trafficking at the EU level was established. A year later, in June 2012, the European Commission adopted the ‘EU Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings 2012-2016’ and an EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator was subsequently appointed by the Commission.

In May 2016, the European Commission published a status report on the progress made so far in the fight against human trafficking. Defining human trafficking as “the buying, selling, and exploitation of adults and children”, it was the first data-driven report on trafficking in Europe. It contained the following  conclusions:

  • According to the data, in 2013-2014 a total of 15,846 women, men, girls, and boys were registered as victims of trafficking in the EU.
  • Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is still the most widespread form (making up 67% of registered victims), followed by labour exploitation (21%). The remaining 12% were registered as victims of trafficking for other forms of exploitation.
  • Over three quarters (76%) of registered victims were women and at least 15% of the registered victims were children. The vast majority (65%) of the registered victims were EU citizens.
  • The top five EU countries of citizenship for registered victims in 2013-2014 were Romania, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland. The same countries as for the years 2010-2012.
  • The report further emphasized the fact that “given the complexity of the phenomenon, there are solid grounds to expect that the actual numbers of victims of trafficking in the EU are indeed substantially higher”. 

More than just numbers

“To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist.” – Kiya, a survivor of human trafficking, Salvation Army 2016 Annual Report

If one only looks at the numbers, the plight of victims of trafficking remains rather distant and impersonal. But behind each data point there are thousands of destroyed lives, anguished families, and broken dreams. “These women have no dreams, they don’t know what to do”, said Frits Rouvoet, Director of the Brightfame Foundation, an organization that supports women who have been trafficked in the Netherlands, speaking at one of the anti-trafficking EU events held in Brussels.

It’s important to remember that human trafficking is a fundamental violation of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that: “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.” Trafficking is a violation of these rights – and a horrific crime against the basic dignity of the human being. As a form of exploitation, human trafficking affects the society at large, and weakens its moral and social fabric. It also dehumanises the people who are trafficked, while at the same time rewarding the inhumanity of traffickers.

During one of the events organized in October at the European Parliament, Myria Vassiliadou, EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, stated: “If we want to tackle trafficking we need to ask who buys services of exploitation!” She added that the recent refugee crisis has worsened the situation since many refugees are being exploited by criminal networks. She advocated a focus on prevention – and ‘following the money trail’ that lies behind the trafficking and exploitation of desperate human beings. Unfortunately, she said, for some victims it is too late. But “we cannot afford to step back” from the challenge, she said in a concluding statement.