Human Trafficking: A case for deeper European integration

Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. Photo: Ira Gelb on flickr.

During the International Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and Slave Trade of 1926, a global consensus was found which created international standards for the protection of human rights. However, Dr. Ed Bates, co-author of International Human Rights law warns us that enforcing these standards is a different story altogether. This becomes more than apparent when one looks at statistics on human trafficking. Worldwide it is estimated that traffickers annually make a 32 billion dollar profit, with 20.9 million forced labourers, of which 880.000 are within the borders of the EU. This equates to 1.8 person per 1000 inhabitants being caught up in human trafficking. Still, if we put these numbers into a global perspective, the EU accounts only for 4.2% of the total number of human trafficking cases. But the question of how well the EU is faring in its battle against human trafficking can still be raised.

As the EU plunges from one crisis to the other, populist politicians are keen to point out that the EU is becoming more politically and economically fractured by the day. However, we tend to forget that the EU brings forth opportunities to deal with cross-border problems which are often impossible for individual countries to tackle on their own. It does so by pursuing further European integration through the facilitation of international negotiations, by bringing countries, organisations and institutes together which share a mutual interest in dealing with particular issues that cross borders. Human trafficking is an excellent example of such an issue.

Prof. Janie A. Chuang from the Washington College of Law explains human trafficking as an cumulative process, beginning from the recruitment or transport of persons by either force, fraud or coercion. These methods are found within a wide range of sectors including sex tourism, domestic work, forced begging and servile marriage through the mail order bride industry.

The EU defined and thus acknowledged the wide occurrence of human trafficking at the ‘European convention on action against trafficking in human beings, 2005’. Nevertheless, Prof. Christine Chinkin points out that a convention functions in the same way as a treaty. Thus, although it may include many states, it is subject to member state’s consent to make the authority of a treaty binding as source of law. In plain English, it makes an agreement open for differing interpretations. Chinkin also underlines that in order to reach consensus at the end of a treaty negotiation process, some integrity must be compromised by allowing states to make reservations and allow room for different interpretations.

Worldwide it is estimated that traffickers annually make a 32 billion dollar profit, with 20.9 million forced labourers, of which 880.000 are within the borders of the EU. Photo: dee_gee on flickr.

Every nation within the EU has its own interpretation on different aspects of human rights. In order to deal with these matters the EU has the ability to create directives that lay down certain end results that must be met by every Member State within a certain time. The purpose of these directives is to harmonise different national laws. A directive on human trafficking was approved by the European Parliament on the 14th of December 2010. This increased the EU’s legal power, allowing it to penalize nations that do not sufficiently implement changes in their national law in the area of human trafficking.

Although the EU is pushing for reforms there is still a lot of room for improvements. Problems are found in the process of collecting statistical data about human trafficking. As member states are tasked with collecting data, they have experienced difficulties in identifying people who are the victims of human trafficking. More critique is expressed by NGOs such as Save the Children, Terres des Hommes and Amnesty International, regarding the EU’s human trafficking directive. They have criticised it as not-innovative and lacking in binding power, saying, “It is the non-binding character of some of the provisions in the directive… Member States may decide not to apply the rules when the offence is committed outside its territory. Also, the provision of non-criminalisation of trafficked persons is left to the discretion of Member States.”

The previous comments show that the EU has still a long way to go in its battle against human trafficking. However, it is an immense step forward that the EU with all its member states has acknowledged the importance of tackling this important human rights issue. Because of the EU, member states are able to conceive a coherent strategy by sharing best practices in the prevention, protection, support of the victims and prosecution of traffickers. Progress is being made, but perhaps further integration would quicken it.


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