Prevent trafficking in human beings by addressing the root causes

[19 February 2007] - There has been much talk about trafficking of human beings - but not enough action. UNICEF and Terre des Hommes recently reported about the failure to protect children from traffickers in South Eastern Europe. They requested stronger action to address the root causes and the patterns of supply and demand that govern the cycle. They are right that the campaign against the trafficking of both children and adults must intensify to become more effective. The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings is a key instrument for that purpose and should be ratified by all member states without further delay.


Trafficking is a serious criminal offence and is difficult to uncover. The shadowy nature of the trade, the practice of omertà – “code of silence” - applied by the criminal networks, and the victim’s fear of retaliation if they report their condition, make it particularly difficult to estimate the extent and precise nature of this dirty business. The degree of force and deceit involved in the exploitation also vary from case to case.

What we know, however, is that trafficking is a major source of income for organised criminal groups and that the number of victims is incredibly high. We also know which are the most common countries and regions of origin, transit and destination.

Some of the trafficking is connected to sexual exploitation, but not all. Many of the victims end up in begging, domestic work or manual labour, for instance, in agriculture or construction.

What these victims have in common is that they easily become dependent on criminals, and that they are frequently exploited by local employers or clients. A large number of them are undocumented migrants and are therefore particularly vulnerable. In fact, many of them live in slave-like conditions.

Therefore, human rights standards must be at the core of all strategies against trafficking. Police action is essential but alone it is not enough. It must be supplemented by concrete preventive measures and by an effective protection of the rights of the victim. This also goes, of course, for victims sans papiers.

Undocumented migrants have the right to safety and protection and to be treated as victims and not as criminals. Indeed, they should be granted a fair hearing with due process. Indeed, they should be granted a residence permit in the country if they co-operate with law-enforcement or if their personal situation so warrants.

Many trafficked victims hesitate to take the risk of seeking help from the authorities because they fear they will not be heard or they will be just deported. It is an urgent challenge for governments in transit and destination countries to find humane but effective ways of helping these individuals.

The traffickers must be caught and punished; the conduct of employers and clients who knowingly exploit those trafficked should be taken to justice; and the victims should be effectively protected and assisted. However, much more must also be done to prevent the trafficking chain at its very beginning.

The root causes are known: poverty, gender inequality, unemployment, abuse and marginalisation. These human rights problems must be addressed. People are lured by traffickers because they are desperate and public information about the risks involved has not been sufficiently effective. It is the responsibility of all countries implicated throughout the process of trafficking to support the countries of origin to change the situation. After all, this is a common problem.

The Council of Europe Convention is a comprehensive treaty which aims to prevent trafficking, protect the victims and prosecute the criminal organisers. It calls for information and education programmes targeting those at risk, as well as action to suppress demand in destination countries.

The Convention is not perfect: negotiations and compromises have, in my opinion, somewhat weakened the rules for victim protection. Yet, the Convention is the most advanced and ambitious treaty targeting trafficking in human beings. It possesses a clear human rights dimension and provides for multiple measures of physical, psychological and legal assistance to the victims, including compensation for the damage suffered.

Moreover, the implementation of the Convention will be monitored by a group of independent experts, GRETA, which will undoubtedly increase the effectiveness of the system.

Unfortunately, the treaty has not yet entered into force because too few governments have so far ratified it. Only Moldova, Romania and Austria and Albania have hitherto taken that step.

Common action against trafficking cannot wait any longer. The Convention should be seen as an urgent and necessary first step forward. It is the responsibility of European governments to make sure that it becomes applicable without any further delay.

Further information



Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.