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EU fighting to save child trafficking victims


There's still hope for saving children from the hands of traffickers. Photo courtesy of Scanpix

Some members of the parliament believe that the newest directive to fight human trafficking within EU member states falls short when it comes to child victims’ welfare in destination countries.

By Hala Hisham

A recent directive was implemented in March of 2011 as an attempt to define who should be prosecuted for human trafficking and the appropriate action to be taken in each member state when it comes to supporting victims.

However, certain aspects of the directive are thought to be lacking required legal aspects to help child victims.

What about the children?

According to Staffon Dahl, parliamentary assistant to MEP Anna Hedh, the directive comes short of giving child victims a fair chance of remaining in their destination countries within Europe if that was proven to be in their best interest.

“The problem is that this directive, legally, is not about migration, so therefore the most pressing issue, is permits. Whether or not to give victims residence permits,” says Staffon Dahl.

According to the directive, the child is given legal aid and each member state has the obligation to see what further action should be taken to provide assistance, support and protection for the child.

This is done after the victim is first clearly identified as a child and gone through the necessary investigations. Meanwhile, if the child’s desire is to remain in the destination country, he or she will have to begin applying legally for a residence permit, which in some cases has been proven difficult to acquire.

“Some people claim that if you let victims stay then everyone will claim they’re a victim, it doesn’t really work like that, because that’s done after you’ve gone to court and have been seen as a victim, and that is something you can’t really fake,” says Staffon Dahl.

Victims of trafficking often resort to unconventional ways to enter the country in hopes of finding a better standard of living, but instead are caught in trafficking circles who exploit them for sexual trade or forced labor.

Britta Thomsen, MEP, expresses how she disagrees with the fact that the directive does not make it easier for child victims to stay in host countries if they choose to.

“They shouldn’t be sent home,” says Thomsen. “However, in some cases, like in Denmark, we can see that the majority of trafficked victims want to go back,”

Cecilia Malström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, believes that the directive gives a chance for other alternatives when that is found to be appropriate.

“The Directive does foresee the return and reintegration of the child to the country of origin as a possible durable solution but not as the only solution,” she says.

Legal complications

Currently, member states are allowed to give a reflection period for victims, if they would cooperate with investigations. In that period, they might be considered for a residence permit.

While this may give the children a little hope, a report by the European union agency for fundamental rights documents that the reflection period has proven to be ineffective and rarely helps the child in getting an asylum status.

“The only way in this situation is to go beyond trafficking and start talking about asylum and then see through the process, if protection is found needed, asylum is given,” says Jan Micallef, parliamentary Assistant of Dr Simon Busuttil, MEP and coordinator for the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee.

He explains that in some cases it is easier to acquire asylum rights when the person in question is under 18 years of age.

Meanwhile, the current directive is unable to deal with immigration issues in order not to conflict with any other migration directives within the EU member states.

Staffon Dahl expressed that the parliament could not address migration issues in the new directive as long as another legal document exists that deals with illegal immigrants. However, that document does not take in consideration victims of trafficking or exploitation.

“We would have liked in this directive to make sure that victims can stay if they want to,” says Staffon. “When it comes to reflection periods, in the Netherlands for example, it is 3 months and mostly shorter in other member states, but it is important to make that period longer.”

Longer reflection periods would allow the legal process to go smoother for child victims. It would also give them the chance to rehabilitate from any traumatic experiences they might have faced.

Malström also stresses that particular attention to unaccompanied minors is always the top priority in this directive. “If it were decided that a child should go back to their home country, in theory, according to the Directive, this could only have been done if it were in the best interests of the child,” she says.

Another way out

Petya Nestorova, the executive secretary of the group of experts on human trafficking in the Council of Europe (GRETA), identifies the problem as more than a play of laws and legislations.

“There is a need to involve child experts, and to have a multi-disciplinary approach, we have countries where it is all left to the police, we criticize that in our reports, we say that basically the system has to be a multi agency with specialists in child protection, social workers, educators..etc,” says Nestorova.

She believes that involving more trained officials would help the child cope better after any trauma and thus make a sound decision on what he or she sees as their best interest.

Moreover, experts working in independent organizations dealing with trafficked victims believe that, commonly, victims want to remain in the destination countries and attempt to integrate.

Marco Bufo, coordinator of the European NGOs platform against trafficking, exploitation and slavery project “ENPATES”, suggests that child victims should be offered prospects of inclusion in the host society.

“It depends on the age and the individual situation and so on. When they are grown up, normally, they do not want to go back,” says Bufo.

Similarly, Enrico Ragagalia, project officer of the Anti-Trafficking program at the International center for migration policy development “ICMPD”, adds that the nature of the circumstances during which the child was brought in the country is crucial to identify whether staying is more beneficial.

“I have to say that most of the time they want to stay in the country,” says Ragagalia. “It also depends on the way they were recruited, if they were kidnapped they might want to go back.”

Is it safe to go back?

Trafficked children once sent back to their country of origin are often feared to be caught again by traffickers and thus go back into the same cycle.

Søren Kragh Pedersen, spokesman of Europol, suggests that this is a possibility. “There is a risk, but it would be different from country to country and is up to these countries, hopefully, to have appropriate mechanisms to ensure that this is not going to happen”.

Moreover, Silke Albert, crime prevention expert at UNODC described that several cases of re-trafficked victims have been reported to the human trafficking section. However, no specific numbers could be documented.

“Such cases could concern e.g. Roma children trafficked from Romania, Bulgaria to one EU country, would, after having been returned to their country of origin, end up trafficked in another EU country. Also victims from African countries who have been trafficked to European countries could fall victim again – their vulnerability may have even increased after returning home, often empty-handed and stigmatized,“ he says.

However, the question remains of whether these risks would be prevented if a change was seen in the current directive, or more legal action was taken in protecting child victims.

  • The United Nations estimates that 700,000 to 4 million women and children are trafficked around the world for purposes of forced prostitution, labor and other forms of exploitation every year.
  • Trafficking is estimated to be a $7 billion dollar annual business.
  • Victims of trafficking are subject to gross human rights violations including, rape, torture, forced abortions, starvation, and threats of torturing or murdering family members.

Malström believes that currently the directive well defines any appropriate action that should be taken.

“An individual assessment of the best interests of the child victim should determine whether returning to their home country presents a real danger for the victim.” She says.

Early analytical reports of the effectiveness of this directive are to be published by the European commission sometime this April. These will hopefully shed some light on issues that might need adjustments in the near future.