Sunday 26. September 2021
#195 - July-August 2016

Shedding new light on the trafficking of human beings in the EU

Despite the existence of greater social awareness of this criminal activity and the build-up of expertise in the Member States, two major challenges remain: obtaining better data and fighting new forms of trafficking.

Since the adoption in 2011 of the EU Directive against trafficking in human beings, the EU and its Member States have improved their legal tools and policies for combating this criminal activity. Nevertheless, greater tenacity is needed, together with a more detailed understanding of certain dimensions of this phenomenon, especially of its new types and trends. A spotlight has to be shone on some new forms of trafficking, and the importance of providing reliable estimations recognised. In November 2014, COMECE, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the European Commission jointly organised a Dialogue Seminar on the fight against trafficking in human beings, during which the inadequacy of the statistical tools used by the European Commission was revealed.


Statistical gap and gender dimension of trafficking


In its first report on the progress in the fight against trafficking in human beings, the European Commission gives the figure of 15,846 ‘registered victims’ (both identified and presumed) of trafficking in the EU. Without calling into question the accuracy of this number, the main issue is why the EU only counts as victims of human trafficking those who have contacted the authorities, and why it does not provide estimated figures, as do most of the international organisations involved (such as ILO, International Labour Organization and UNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The statistical gap between registered cases and estimated numbers of victims is huge. Given the mainly concealed nature of this kind of crime, a more realistic picture of its true extent and variety can only be obtained from estimated numbers. In fact, the ILO believes that the number of persons in forced labour in the EU is as high as 880,000 (not counting the hundreds of thousands of other occurrences of trafficking in human beings, notably the victims of sexual exploitation).


Moreover, the official EU figure also distorts the real situation and gives rise to misperceptions because most of the victims who contact the authorities are usually sexually exploited women. The UNODC has raised the alarm about this problem because “a misperception may exist that men are not victims of human trafficking, which further distorts ratios.” The abovementioned EU report highlights the fact that 76% of registered victims are women, but estimated figures reveal that most victims of labour exploitation tend to be male. The fact is that labour exploitation has become less visible because male victims are often dealt with as irregular migrants and not as subjects of trafficking; they also tend to work in rural areas (hence are less likely to be monitored by authorities). Therefore trafficking in human beings should not be regarded as a “women’s issue” but be treated as a transversal problem affecting men, women and children in different ways.


Reproductive exploitation – a new form of trafficking


Nevertheless, women – and children – are particularly exposed to a new form of exploitation for reproductive purposes. This recent phenomenon was highlighted as a type of ‘modern slavery’ during the Dialogue Seminar referred to above. One common type of this exploitation is the so-called ‘surrogate motherhood’, an issue increasingly mentioned in ethical and political debates, also at the level of the Council of Europe, where a report ‘on human rights and the ethical issues related to surrogacy’ is being prepared. In the European Parliament, a resolution of 17 December 2015 on the Annual Report on Human Rights concluded that gestational surrogacy, a practice “which involves reproductive exploitation (…) shall be prohibited and treated as a matter of urgency in human rights instruments” (§115).


Furthermore, another resolution of 12 May 2016 on implementation of the Directive against trafficking in human beings called for the EU “to pay attention to and make visible the new forms of trafficking and exploitation of human beings, including reproductive exploitation and trafficking in new-born children” (§52). The European Commission, in turn, in its abovementioned progress report, reveals that it has been reported in Member States that “pregnant women are being recruited and forced to sell their new-born babies” (page 7).


In order to fight this new form of trafficking in human beings, Article 2 (3) of the Directive against trafficking in human beings – which specifies the minimum content of the term ‘exploitation’ in the context of the definition of trafficking in human beings – should be amended to add exploitation for reproductive purposes (as in the case of surrogacy) to the list of forms of trafficking mentioned therein (sexual exploitation, forced labour etc).


José Luis Bazán & José Ramos-Ascensão


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Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.