Member of the European Commission responsible for Home Affairs
Speech at the European Anti-Trafficking Day
Belgian Presidency Conference on Anti-Trafficking
Brussels, 18 October 2010
Good morning Ladies and gentlemen.
I am very honoured to have been given the opportunity to speak at this very important annual event. The number and level of participants here today underlines the great importance we all attach to the fight against trafficking, and I would very much like to thank the Belgian Presidency for having organized this conference. I know also that all over Europe today, there are different events highlighting the European anti-trafficking day.
A few months ago, I met with a group of young British men who had been threatened, physically abused and forced to do construction work and gardening in a residential area in southern Sweden. They had been tricked to come to Sweden under false conditions and now found themselves doing extremely hard work for almost nothing, living in complete isolation. When the border police got to the persons behind it, they found out that these young men were victims of a big trafficking network based in the United Kingdom, and with branches in both Sweden and the Netherlands.
This is only one of many stories of people who are forced to sell their work force and bodies and who have their lives taken over by criminal networks. I have also met young women who have been used as sexual slaves, forced to sell their bodies day after day, week after week. Their stories are heartbreaking.
It is clear to all of us that trafficking in human beings is a crime that cannot be tolerated in any form in Europe – or anywhere else. In current history books, we are told that slavery was abolished a long time ago: yet the estimated number of trafficking victims in Europe shows that slavery still exists. Trafficking in human beings is the human slavery of our time.
Trafficking is a threat to the perhaps most important value of our societies, namely the individual freedom and dignity of each human being. Our counter-actions must be at least as strong as that threat is.
So, let me give you a short overview of the main actions that the EU already has taken to fight this threat, and what we are preparing to do in the coming years.
On 29 March this year, the European Commission adopted a new proposal for a Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, and protecting the victims.
The proposal includes a common definition of the crime, higher penalties, as well as protection against punishment for illegal activities that the victims might have been involved in as a result of the crime committed against them.
The Directive also proposes to better protect the victims by providing them with accommodation, medical care, and witness protection so that they are not afraid to testify against their perpetrators. They would also receive legal aid throughout the proceedings, including for claiming financial compensation for what they have been going through.
The proposal is currently under negotiation with the European Parliament and the Council, and I am very happy to note that all institutions and Member States share the same objectives in this area. Although some issues are still open, I have reason to hope that the negotiations will soon be concluded successfully, possibly even by the end of this year.
Once the Directive is in place, Europe will have a common legal framework for the fight against trafficking in human beings. This will considerably facilitate judicial and law enforcement cooperation both within and between Member States.
The 2011 strategy
Better legislation is one important step forward, but it is not enough.
As human trafficking is almost always a cross-border crime, it is just as important to make sure that law enforcement and judicial cooperation over the borders is built on mutual trust and function as smooth as possible. Joint investigations and prosecutions, with the active involvement of EUROPOL and EUROJUST, have proven to be an important tool in practice.
And there are several other issues which require attention. For example, how to improve identification of victims, how to obtain reliable data on the scale of the problem of human trafficking, how to improve prevention and reduce demand for the services that the victims are forced to provide, how to ensure that trafficking issues are fully integrated in our labour and employment policies, and how to make sure that victims are in practice best assisted, protected and rehabilitated.
Finally, we have to keep in mind the wider geographical dimension. Although trafficking occurs on a large scale within and between Member States, victims are often recruited in countries outside the EU. Human trafficking must therefore an integral part of our external relations.
The Commission has given, and will continue to give, support through its financial instruments to address many of those issues. Cross-border projects - both inside the EU and around the world in Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf, Eastern Europe, Central and Southeast Asia and Latin America - to improve prosecution, prevention, and victim protection have contributed to a more effective European response to the threat that human trafficking poses to our society.
We will take one further step in this work next year, when the Commission plans to adopt an Integrated Strategy on the fight against trafficking. I aim to include all important anti-trafficking actions - that cannot be addressed through legislation - in that strategy.
The European Parliament, Member States, international organizations, NGO's and other stakeholders will of course be consulted on our work leading up this strategy. I hope that you will participate actively, as we want to make sure that we are all moving in the same direction.
In parallel to this work, the Commission is in the process of selecting the first EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, who will have a significant role in implementing and evaluating the strategy and the EU anti-trafficking policy in general. The Anti-Trafficking Coordinator will also work for coherence in all the action that the EU takes to fight human trafficking – both within Europe and in the rest of the world - to make sure that our resources are used where they are most needed.
The issue of residence permits
Trafficking in human beings must be fought from many angles. One of them, and a crucial one, is to enlist the support of former victims in tracking down and punishing those responsible for the crime.
An important instrument we have at our disposal is the Directive on residence permits for trafficking in human beings from 2001. This Directive not only protects the human rights of victims and ensures that there are measures in place to assist in their recovery. It also offers residence permits within the EU to previous victims who help law enforcement authorities in dismantling trafficking networks.
Last Friday the Commission adopted a report on the application of this Directive. It shows that there is still room for improvement. Victims could arguably be given more effective assistance and stronger encouragement to cooperate with law enforcement. This conference may be the right forum to discuss how we can become more efficient in our actions within this field.
The web site
I have briefly outlined a number of actions that the Commission has taken, but it is important that these are linked to the anti-trafficking activities of other actors. All of us need to join forces: local as well as regional actors, Member States as well as international organizations, NGO's and countries outside of Europe.
One step taken by the European Commission in this direction is the creation of an anti-trafficking website that gathers European anti-trafficking policies and legislation. The website will be launched very soon and I hope that it will be a useful tool as a one stop shop for all those involved in fighting trafficking in human beings. There, you will be able to find information on existing work, contact details to stakeholders, and have the possibility to exchange practices and ideas on new actions.
According to the United Nations and the European law enforcement agency Europol, there are hundreds of thousands victims of trafficking in Europe today. However, the number or prosecutions of trafficking offenders remains worryingly low. This is a clear indication that the criminal trafficking business remains very lucrative and that what we have done so far is not enough. We need creative, cross-sector thinking by all actors to develop methods to better understand and combat this awful crime.
I have no illusions that we can totally eradicate trafficking in the short, or even in the medium term. But by working together, using the tools and actions that I have mentioned today, I am convinced that we can seriously harm the trafficking networks and substantially improve the – extremely hard – lot of trafficking victims.
Thank you very much for your attention.