26th Oct 2016

Victims unprotected as traffickers walk free

  • Red light district: It’s often impossible to get the fear-stricken victims to testify (Photo: Cédric Puisney)

The top suits in Brussels couldn’t be more in agreement: human trafficking is modern-day slavery and needs to be stamped out with force.

Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt even made it the surprise topic of his annual Christmas speech. Yet the number of convictions for human trafficking turns out to be shockingly low. And while trafficking is on the rise, the conviction rate is actually declining.

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Are slave-traders operating in a state of European impunity?

A sorry example from the German capital: In 2012, Berlin police carried out 680 controls of prostitution milieus in order to identify victims of trafficking. While this led to 64 investigations, a mere two cases resulted in convictions.

In Sweden, it has been illegal to purchase sex since 1999, but internal police reviews admit little is done to enforce the law.

”Lack of resources” is the standard police answer across Europe when confronted with meagre results – but Swedish police explain in an anti-trafficking paper (2011) that effective counter-trafficking work is not necessarily a matter of resources.

A case in point is the Internet. Cyber trafficking (grooming, recruitment, selling of victims) is booming. In a 2013 report, Swedish police even state that ”Internet is the new red-light district”. Yet they have almost no surveillance of online sexual exploitation. And Internet-based research would be an extremely cost-effective means of investigation.

Many instances of human trafficking end in convictions for procurement – a less serious crime, with a slighter punishment. The fault lies with the courts. They urgently need to be educated on the finer workings of human trafficking, says one frustrated officer in Stockholm.

"Judges can rule that a case isn’t trafficking because the exploited girl had a key to the apartment where she was being kept. In their minds, that means she was free to leave. Trafficking may not be a physical prison, but it is a psychological one, equally impossible to escape," continues the officer.

It’s often impossible to get the fear-stricken victims to testify. Lawyers say witnesses regularly escape during trials. Some are offered money (up to 10,000 euro) in exchange for silence, others are under threat. That’s if the case makes it to trial.

"Investigations are often closed at an early stage. If you lack trust in other humans, you’re unlikely to suddenly open up and start revealing sensitive details," says a trauma psychologist specialised in migrant youth.

One would think that the witness protection system is particularly well-crafted for trafficking cases. The opposite turns out to be true. In many EU countries, social workers have no right to remain silent in court. Even when they do, pressure is applied.

Stronger witness support

At an international trafficking conference in Berlin last fall, participants revealed that social workers are summoned to court to testify about their clients, a practice that endangers both their own and the victims’ safety.

Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, agrees that a stronger witness support system is needed.

"Sometimes they’re forced to sit in the same court room as the perpetrators, who can lock eyes with them and silently repeat their threats. Girls should be able to testify remotely, and with adequate training the courts will be more competent."

All victims have the right to an unconditional reflection period of at least 30 days before they decide whether to participate in a trial or not, according to the European Council’s anti-trafficking convention.

Psychologists suggest at least 3-6 months’ recuperation from the traumatic experience, which often results in severe health problems such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The convention has been ratified by 40 member states, including Sweden and Germany, yet NGOs all over Europe reveal systematic breaches.

Leading asylum lawyer Karin Gyllenring has investigated the situation in Sweden.

"I’ve discovered that the problem isn’t that we don’t offer long enough periods, but that we don’t even offer the minimum 30 days victims are entitled to."

Gyllenring and her law firm are so concerned that they have created a Swedish civil society platform to assist victims, lobby for greater support and strengthen victims’ legal rights.

Across the EU, victims are coerced into taking the stand with the threat of not getting their residence permits. It’s a cruel practice by the authorities, as a forced return can mean risking their lives. Many victims dare only go half the distance.

"I told the court that I didn’t know [her female trafficker], that she had bought me from someone else," admits one West African ex-victim.

"The truth is that she’s a relative, and the one who brought me to Europe in the first place. But had I exposed her, her men could have hurt my family."

As so many other traffickers, not least female ones, the woman walked free. Somewhere in Central Europe.

From trafficking victim to perpetrator

It has taken months to make contact with a former Nigerian madame and arrange a meeting. When Joan finally sits down before us, she strikes us as a beautiful woman, with deep, dark eyes and a soft voice. She can’t quite keep her fingers still. Her feet keeps wiggling, too. But mostly Joan looks directly into our eyes as she tells a rarely heard story: how she went from trafficking victim to perpetrator.

Joan grew up in Nigeria, with patriarchal structures, oppression and violence, and the belief that there are strong supernatural forces at work: Voodoo, exerted by influential, self-appointed priests. Longing for a better life, she was deceived by a local woman and trafficked to Europe while still very young.

One crucial detail set Joan apart from the other slaves: after a while, she realised that her madame had taken a liking to her. Joan seized the opportunity, deciding to be obedient at all times, no matter how gruelling ”work” was.

Soon, she was teaching new girls how the game worked, reporting their progress and private chatter to the madame. She was awarded with little freedoms, was treated better than the others and got to keep more money, too.

"A game of stick and carrot," she says today, not without bitterness.

Joan’s madame was a master manipulator. She was the chief oppressor, threatening her slaves if they dared talk back, but it was the men on her payroll who were ordered to carry out physical punishments. After the beatings, she would comfort the victims, acting as a surrogate mother to the vulnerable girls, desperate for affection.

"I could see what she was doing. But I had already risen, I was benefitting and I wanted to bring back a sense of control over my own destiny," Joan explains.

She continued climbing, using other victims as stepping stones, until finally she was a madame herself. Using contacts of her old madame, she placed an order for new women to be brought in from Nigeria. She would dress them up, she says, and with the help of a man who became her husband kept a tight leash on them. In a final closing of the circle, she recruited a new Joan – a right-hand woman fiercely loyal because of the possibility of climbing the criminal ladder.

Today, Joan doesn’t want to talk about how much money she earned as a madame. She has spent time in prison for sexual exploitation, but the police were unable to prove all the things she had done. The sentence was slight. She is a free woman now, not yet 40.

Her belief in the powers of voodoo remains strong. She saw it as her duty to fulfill the contract with her madame, as promised to the spirits, and is remarkably proud of having done so. She admits that she is undergoing therapy, to ”work through my past”, and makes a point of distancing herself from the trafficking scene. She doesn’t have anything to do with that business anymore, she assures us.

But whether she is ashamed of the pain she inflicted on innocent women, many of whom are now suffering daily just as she once did, Joan for some reason will not say.

Driving back to a large European city, young, fresh-looking girls sprout up like flowers on the side of the garbage-strewn road. Who, like Lilian Solomon, hides a deadly disease? Who, like Victoria, carries an unborn child that will prove her salvation?

The wheel of the modern-day slave trade keeps spinning, constantly fed with new flesh.

This article was first published in Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden) and Spiegel Online (Germany) in Jan/Feb 2014 and is part of series of investigations into human trafficking.The series was made possible by a working grant from

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