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RIGHTS: EU Urged to Step Up Efforts Against Human Trafficking

Mario de Queiroz

PORTO, Portugal, Oct 10 2007 (IPS) - The governments of the European Union were urged to create a network of special units to investigate and combat the trafficking of persons, which in the last few years has become the third largest source of revenue for organised crime, after the drug trade and the arms trade.

A two-day Conference on Human Trafficking and Gender, an initiative of the EU presidency, currently held by Portugal, ended late Tuesday in the city of Porto in northern Portugal with a statement calling on countries to take urgent measures to support the victims of trafficking.

The conference’s final declaration, released Wednesday, presses the 27 EU member states to expedite the incorporation into their domestic legislation of EU provisions on the trafficking in human beings.

The sources of human trafficking victims are Africa, eastern and southeastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Latin America and the Caribbean, while the main destinations are the United States, western Europe, Israel, Japan, Thailand and Turkey.

There are no accurate statistics on human trafficking, and estimates vary. According to a new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Human Trafficking and HIV: Exploring vulnerabilities and responses in South Asia”, it is a global industry that generates five to seven billion dollars a year. Other sources put the total as high as 9.5 billion dollars a year.

Jorge Lacão, secretary of state to the EU presidency, said the economic impact of human trafficking is comparable to that of the trafficking of arms and drugs.

Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission and EU justice commissioner, urged “zero tolerance for the criminals and total protection for the victims,” and said “policies to fight trafficking must be strengthened because the response has been feeble.”

He called for stepped-up investigation, the adoption of laws and legal mechanisms making it possible to effectively combat trafficking, information-sharing, and an increase in cooperation within and outside the EU, while stressing the important role that must be played by the cross-border police forces Europol and Interpol.

He added that it is absolutely vital to support the victims, “especially when they are women and children.”

Lacão, meanwhile, said that according to estimates by international organisations, every year “between 800,000 and 1.2 million people across the world are victims of trafficking.” Of these, 80 percent are women and half are children, and most become the victims of sexual exploitation, he added. Sonia Valadares, an activist who has worked for years to defend vulnerable women and children, told IPS that “trafficking in human beings has become a phenomenon of flows of migrants who are described as ‘illegal’ by the authorities and as ‘undocumented’ by the victims” and their defenders.

Many of these women “are unable to find work in factories, agriculture, trade or domestic service, and because hunger and debt are unforgiving,” they are drawn into the sex trade, as are many children as well, she said.

Especially vulnerable to pimps and traffickers “are women, frequently with a low level of education, who in order to reach the country of their choice turn to recruiters in their home countries, running up such a large debt that the only way to pay it off is by submitting themselves to a kind of modern-day slavery for months or even years.”

The amount varies. For example, for an undocumented immigrant to make it into the United States from China can cost up to 50,000 dollars, while being smuggled from Morocco to Spain or Portugal costs around 500 dollars.

But people traffickers not only supply the U.S. and EU markets, noted the activist, who cited a case that occurred in Brazil last year, when the police “arrested a local woman and two South Koreans who were convincing girls to go to Seoul to work as prostitutes.”

“The case ended well, because the entire group of traffickers were arrested after the police were tipped off by the mother of one of the young girls, who had been promised a passport, money for the trip and earnings of 90 dollars per client serviced in South Korea,” said Valadares.

Several participants in the Porto conference, which was also attended by experts from outside the EU, described similar techniques.

The traffickers give passports and money to the victims, many of whom believe they will be working as dancers or nannies, or even as prostitutes although not in slavery conditions. But when they reach their destination, the women’s passports are taken away and they are held as slaves.

The traffickers even have studies on the preferences of clients in specific countries, turning women into merchandise that can be selected according to the client’s taste in today’s globalised market.

The owner of a night club on the outskirts of Porto, who has also worked in other European countries and who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS that “the ‘queens’ of the night in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland are Brazilian women, but in the bars and discotheques of Germany, Venezuelan women are preferred.”

The case of Portugal was discussed in the conference as an illustration of the global phenomenon of human trafficking.

Presented at the conference was the study “Trafficking of Women in Portugal for the Purposes of Sexual Exploitation”, carried out by a team headed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

The authors reported that Brazilians are the largest group of sexually exploited foreign women in Portugal, followed by Africans, especially Nigerians.

Superstition also plays a role. The study presents cases of Nigerian women who want to escape prostitution but are afraid to turn to the police out of fear that the traffickers will use witchcraft against them or their families.

Brazilian women brought to Portugal to work as prostitutes even end up assuming the role of recruiters or exploiters themselves, controlling the movements of the victims of trafficking, says the report.

In the meantime, many of the mafias from eastern Europe, which were so powerful in Portugal in the late 1990s or the beginning of this decade, have seen their influence wane, mainly as a result of a concerted police effort to eradicate them, add the study’s authors: Sousa Santos, Conceição Gomes, Magdalena Duarte and Maria Ioannis Baganha.

For his part, Lacão stressed the importance of providing special support to the victims of trafficking, including a high level of protection to enable them to help fight the criminal organisations of which they were the targets.

The measures proposed by the Portuguese secretary of state include visa extensions and the creation of special shelters for trafficking victims.

The recommendations outlined in the conference’s final declaration will be taken to EU headquarters in Brussels, where the EU Anti-Trafficking Day will be launched on Oct. 18.

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