"I will pass out any minute if I have to continue harvesting in this heat," he thinks. The last time he ate was yesterday. Or the day before? With only three or four hours of sleep per night, the days intertwine in his memory. But the foreman is merciless; anyone who stops working, even if it's just for a minute, will be punished. "God, please, help me escape! I have to get home, somehow!" But before he can even make up a plan, he is sold and transported to work on yet another plantation, in yet another corner of this foreign country with its foreign language…

This is not the story of a black slave in the year 1785 on Saint-Domingue (former Haiti). This is happening in Southern Spain, today.

Most Traffickers remain unpunished

Human trafficking is one of the longest established, yet most neglected problems in Europe. A report published by the United Nations shows that this illegal business is actually growing and more than 140,000 people are currently estimated to be victims of forced labour in Europe. The Report on Trafficking in Human Beings in the European Union (2011), compiled by Europol, defines the crime of Trafficking as "the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by criminals who deal with people as commodities to be traded for the sole purpose of financial gain."

"The UN estimates that human trafficking, which is a form of modern slavery, is the third most lucrative crime worldwide; right behind drug trafficking and the trade of weapons," David Ellero, counter-trafficking project manager at Europol told E&M.

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
84% of victims were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The estimated profit made from the sexual exploitation of trafficked victims is around two million euros per year.

"Europe is a big hub for traffickers; no country in the Union is actually not affected in some way. Some are source countries; some serve as transit and others as destinations. To which categroy you belong depends partly on your socio-economic situation," Ellero said. "It would, however, be a mistake to believe that trafficking victims are all uneducated and poor. We also have cases of academics; girls who were promised a model career; British citizens who pick up young drug-addicts from the street to force them to work in road construction in Scandinavia." But the essential principles are the same in each case: victims are first deceived and then exploited.

In their attempt to tackle human trafficking in Europe, Europol and specialised national police forces face a number of difficulties.

"Before joining the counter trafficking unit at Europol, I was a homicide officer in Naples. I handled Mafia cases; in Naples we have the Camorra. Believe me, that was no easy job, but acting against trafficking is more complex. No matter which type of legislation you choose, it can be circumvented. If you try to abolish child trafficking and forced begging by forbidding children to beg, they will sell flowers instead.

Photo: Beverly & Pack (CC)
"It would be a mistake to believe that trafficking victims are all uneducated and poor." Many educated victims are promised well-paid jobs in Europe

But here comes the next difficulty: to prove a trafficking case. Because in many cases the victims themselves work against you! Many of them don't realise that they are victims. Imagine a dozen Chinese people working 21 hours a day in a Polish textile company; they see themselves as migrants, paying off their debts for the trip from China which was probably covered by the traffickers. When the police arrive they are hostile and afraid of being deported. In a case of drug traffic, as soon as you have the cocaine, you have the case. But with human trafficking, the object of investigation is a person and this person might lie to you. Every time you question her, she tells you a different story."

The difficulty of defining and recognising human trafficking has serious legal consequences. The EU lacks a common definition of the crime - in some countries cases are reigstered as human trafficking if it can be proven that the victims have been purchased; in some others the victims need to cross national borders. If the conditions are not fulfilled completely, cases are merely seen as illegal prostitution rather than sex trafficking, or illegal migration rather than exploitation of trafficked workers. Therefore, in spite of the very high estimated number of victims in Europe, only very few cases are brought to court - the most recent statistics, published in 2006, show that only 1500 cases were filed that year in the Union! Most traffickers very likely remain unpunished.

As ironic as it sounds, although the openness of our borders is not the only reason, it may help aggravate the problem.

"Europe is a big hub for traffickers; no country in the Union is actually not affected in some way."

"Open borders didn't really trigger [human trafficking]… but of course they have made the trafficker's life much easier. Schengen is a fantastic opportunity, but unfortunately, it's a fantastic opportunity for everybody." The agreement signed between the Schengen countries entails a complete lack of systematic border controls during which police officers could theoretically look out for trafficked victims. Moreover, Ellero suggests that cheap air fares and the rising socio-economic inequalities between countries also contribute to the problem.

The majority of human trafficking victims in Europe come from the Balkans and the former USSR, particularly Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Moldova. However a substantial number of trafficked victims, especially women and girls, have been brought from South America, and their main destinations are Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. Here is one victim's story...

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