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Trafficking of women and children into the European Union

jeudi 31 octobre 2002, par Josefina Gamboa

Trafficking in women and children has seen a steep increase, both globally and in Europe. Together with the trafficking of drugs and arms is one of the most lucrative international criminal activities. Although exact figures are hard to establish, it is estimated that between 300 000- 400 000 women have been trafficked into the EU during the last couple of years.

The large majority of trafficked women and children are destined for exploitation in the West European sex markets, although trafficking for other purposes, such as work in the domestic or other service sectors are also occurring. Trafficking in women and children is an abuse that is closely interlinked with current globalisation processes, economic liberalisation and inequality, and migration flows. So far everyone agrees. The disagreement appears when feminists want to bring power relations between women and men and sexual politics into the analysis.
Trafficking in women and children is a trade following the usual logics of a market. Therefore, it is not an expression of cynicism to use the market terminology when speaking about trafficking. On the contrary, it is essential to understand the phenomena. Poverty, restrictions in the opportunities for women and to create a livelihood, the myth of the ’West’, and unawareness about the dangers of trafficking are some factors that create a ’supply’ of mostly young women that can more easily be deceived by traffickers. On the ’demand’ side of the trade in women and children, we find the sex industry, with their systems of pimps, clandestine or legal brothels, …and buyers of sexual services.
Although everyone knows that trafficking in women and children is directly linked to the issue of prostitution and growing Western European sex markets, feminists are the only ones to repeatedly insisting on this in the debates. The trafficking of women into sexual exploitation in prostitution has meant changes in the prostitution systems. The conditions for trafficked women in prostitution tend – if possible – to be even more slave like. Trafficking has also meant that the sex markets have expanded and consequently the exploitation as well. The number of ’foreign’ women in prostitution is greater than ever. In France it is estimated that 70 % of women in prostitution are non-French. In Belgium the figure is close to 80% and in Austria, around 90% of prostituted women are from abroad. However, ’abroad’ is not anywhere, but from Africa, Asia, and increasingly and in majority – women from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Newly Independent States. Although men’s buying of women in prostitution has always been based on the notion of the ’other woman’, the number of ’foreign’ women has never been so high. It is important that it is in this fairly new context a new-old debate on the legalisation or not of sex trade and the fight against trafficking is taking place.

Growing international concern

Trafficking in human beings involve violations of a range of Human rights. A growing concern within the International community about the increase in trafficking resulted in the drafting and adoption of the UN protocol on the …... The protocol is a first step international to fight trafficking in humans, and includes a wide definition of victims of trafficking’ in order to enable as many women, men and children as possible to bring charges against the traffickers. All Member states of the European Union has signed the protocol, and should be in the process of translating the commitments into national legislation to pursue traffickers and protect the victims of trafficking.
The European Union has also started to take steps to combat trafficking in human beings. Two framework decisions on the subject have been adopted this year. One specifically addresses trafficking in children, while the second decision addresses the trafficking in Human beings. Nothing is said and stated about the fact that the large majority of victims of trafficking into the EU countries are women, and that the large majority of them are destined to be exploited in prostitution. The unwillingness to speak about the destination purpose (the demand side) of the human merchandise trafficked across borders was compact within the Council of Ministers of the EU. The countries rejecting to address the demand side of the trade most fiercely are of course Holland and Germany that has recently legalised prostitution and brothels.

Focus on crime fighting in a paradigm of ’illegal immigration’

It is news to no one, that the European Union does not have a common policy or standpoint on sexual politics. However, in terms of immigration policy and border controls the EU is in rapid process of harmonising their policies. It is therefore maybe not so surprising that it is mainly from the perspective of crime prevention, seeing trafficking as a form of ’illegal immigration’ that the EU has chosen to address trafficking. This approach is fundamentally wrong in that the focus should be on (women’s) human rights - preventing the violation of these rights and give proper support to victims of trafficking to re-establish their rights. Instead the focus is clearly set on crime fighting, which means border co-operation and control, Europol investigations, etc. Here again, it is very hard to advocate for a strong human rights perspective in the approach to trafficking, when the Member States refuse to even name the human rights violations in question – being that women and children are trafficked into the hands of criminal networks in Western Europe for exploitation in prostitution.
The zero-immigration polices themselves of EU countries is another factor that affects trafficking negatively, and ensures continuous business for traffickers. Fortress Europe is in some way breeding illegal ways of entering into the EU (because per definition quasi all immigration that is not family reunification will at one stage or the other cross into ’illegality’). In this context another very serious issue are the restrictions on the free movement of persons for the future Member States. Even after enlargement, the new EU citizens are not granted free movement of persons until after seven years. Women from these countries can however be granted residence permits in Holland if they agree to be ’employed as independent professionals in prostitution’ . There is the European project for you !

Prevention strategies

Since there is (almost) a general consensus to close eyes and mouth about the exploitation of trafficked women by western European men in the sex market, the focus in the discussions on prevention strategies is placed elsewhere – in the sending countries in order to reduce the ’supply’. While the member States insist on not being clear about the gender of the victims of trafficking when it comes to formulating polices for their own countries, they seem to know much better when it comes to identifying target groups in the countries of origin. Several campaigns targeting especially young women have been carried out with the purpose of raising awareness about the dangers of trafficking.
One must clearly say, that in terms of prevention strategies, the most logical thing to do would be to look at and address the dynamics at one’s own backyard before starting to point the fingers at governments and other actors in the countries from which women are trafficked. Instead the EU countries are implicitly as well as explicitly pointing fingers to governments and the population in general in the sending countries, as failing to foster a culture and societies where gender equality is important, and where women are provided with enough alternatives and possible livelihoods. This of course is many times not completely untrue, except that the geo- and economical power relations between countries makes the equation a bit more complex than this ! The crisis in legitimacy of the EU arises with the fact that one refuses to deal with the ’demand’ side – located within the own Member States’ borders, and thus logically a much more reasonable task to engage in – but this would mean to seriously target the sex markets in Western Europe.

When Human Rights are (re-)violated

The absence of a strong Human rights approach in the fighting of trafficking have very serious consequences when it comes to the treatment and support to women victims of trafficking. When crime fighting and fighting illegal immigration is the main objective, the women victims are reduced to potential witnesses, to bearers of valuable information. The fact that their rights have been seriously violated is a secondary concern, and anyway exploitation in prostitution is not recognised as a violation of rights by most EU countries. The consequence is that women are asked to witness (involving great risks for their lives) in order to catch and punish the criminal traffickers. Beyond that she is just an illegal immigrant, and as such, is treated as any illegal immigrant – that is she is thrown out, or as it is more often called, ’repatriated’. The EU Member States are currently discussing a new framework directive that would grant victims of trafficking temporary residence permit, on the condition that she is willing to assist in the criminal investigation. This conditionality does obviously not see as primary objective to re-establish and prevent further violation of the victim’s human rights. And in the end, after the trial and/or investigation, it is still mostly likely that she is sent back to the country from which she was trafficked. This treatment of the victims of trafficking is of course the ultimate treason, and certainly is in deep contradiction to the notion of protecting someone’s rights from further violation. Furthermore, services and assistance to victims of trafficking is enormously under-dimensioned, and women’s shelters and various women’s NGOs are struggling wit too few means to provide assistance to the growing number of trafficked women.
The policy response based on a feminist standpoint, would be to grant all victims of trafficking the right to an individual asylum process, in order to obtain permanent residence permits. The violence victims of trafficking are subjected to through the trafficking processes, and through exploitation in the sex market in the west – serving Western European men, are grounds enough for asylum.

The EU should address the issue on their own backyard

When will western Europe stop the double morals, to point fingers to other states about the shortcomings in gender equality, and deal with what is on their own territories – the demand side, the countries of destination. Trafficking cannot be dealt without addressing the issue of prostitution. Women are being trafficked to be bought by someone in the end. And the end consumer is the Western European man. The refusal to target the demand side undermines every attempt actually made in order stop trafficking. Without demand - no business for traffickers of women and children.


Malin Björk - october 2002

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