As the European Union observes "Anti-Trafficking Day", the struggle to help victims and bring perpetrators to justice is taking center-stage. Estimates say up to four million people worldwide are trafficked annually.
Traffickers are often involved in other forms of criminality
Several hundred thousand people are still being trafficked into or within the European Union annually – a form of modern-day slavery.
And more than ever, human trafficking today is a pan-European problem.
With the motto "time for action," the first EU Anti-Trafficking Day was established on October 18, 2007, upon recommendation from the European Parliament and an EU Commission proposal.
Now as the bloc marks the fourth annual day against human trafficking in 2010, European law enforcement is putting the focus on prosecution of the perpetrators.
"We're not seeing the number of cases coming to court that we would like," Steve Harvey, Europol's regional support officer for southeast Europe and the Balkans, told Deutsche Welle.
For European law enforcement, the focus is on prosecuting human trafficking crimes
Bringing human traffickers to justice can be a tricky proposition. Smuggling human beings across national borders for sexual and labour exploitation is a complex crime, and efforts to collect evidence can be particularly challenging.
Victims' testimonies are invaluable to help stop the crime, yet these persons are already in a vulnerable position. Most are afraid to talk about their experiences because they fear both deportation from the country they have been trafficked to as well as repercussions from traffickers.
Crime in the spotlight
Law enforcement is complicated because traffickers are operating in international networks.
"Traffickers are professional criminals," Harvey said, adding that most perpetrators are also involved in other areas of organized crime and make every effort to obstruct the investigation.
Harvey said Europol and other law enforcement agencies must target crime bosses, keeping in mind that arresting street criminals and lower-level traffickers might not impact larger crime networks.
"Given that the trafficking is inherently cross-border, we need to ensure that the local, regional and national investigations are developed to their best potential," he said.
The "cross-border" nature of the problem means that while certain cities and countries, like Germany or Britain, are still favored destinations for smugglers, trafficking is no longer a matter of geographic "hot-spots."
"A few years ago, you could probably pick up a map of Europe and draw some arrows and lines, and chart the routes that people take across Europe," Harvey said.
"I don't think that's relevant anymore."
Human trafficking can involve sexual- or labor-based exploitation
Under the radar
Western European countries are among the favoured destinations for trafficking: In a recent case in Germany, police identified at least 50 victims of human trafficking – many of them from Nigeria – after searching some 600 brothels nationwide.
Meanwhile, Frankfurt police officer Markus Steiner told Deutsche Welle that even when police raids in the city turn up empty-handed, it doesn't always spell good news.
"That doesn't mean that there will be fewer victims from human trafficking," he said. "This only means that the victims will be sent to other cities like Hannover, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Munich and elsewhere in Germany."
In August, police in Bonn arrested a band of human traffickers from Bulgaria that was bringing young women to Germany and forcing them to work as prostitutes.
"The women were staying in rented rooms, mostly in older hotels. They had to share a room with several women, so the hygienic conditions were poor," head investigator Rainer Bell told Deutsche Welle.
"It looks as if the women work the streets 12 to 14 hours on average – in Cologne or Bonn – and only came home to sleep, day after day."
Human traffickers are often involved in other forms of organized crime
Statistics released by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office for 2009 indicated there were 534 criminal investigations into human trafficking involving sexual exploitation – an increase of 11 percent. The number of victims was up 5 percent over the previous year, with 710 reported.
Yet the hidden nature of human trafficking means there are no firm numbers on just how many people become victims annually – a problem that is also reflected on an international level.
Estimates put the figure at between 700,000 and four million worldwide each year, according to Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
"Human trafficking, either for sexual or labor exploitation, is truly a global phenomenon," he told Deutsche Welle. "There are no regions of the world that are not affected by trafficking."
Chauzy said that migrants – including women and children – who leave home in search of better lives often have few chances to emigrate legally, prompting them to take risks that could make them vulnerable to traffickers.
Trafficking victims provide key evidence for prosecutors
"In many cases, unfortunately, they find themselves in situations of exploitation," he said.
It's something that Alina Buteci, a consultant at European anti-trafficking network "La Strada" sees all too often. In the Moldovan capital Chisinau, she receives phone calls from people who are looking for work abroad – and from people looking for family members who are nowhere to be found.
"There are also the relatives of people who are missing, who became victims of smugglers," she said. "They need our help to find their relatives and to bring them back."
Out of some 30,000 calls made to the organization's hotline through the summer of 2009, La Strada said more than 1,000 involved missing persons – and presumed cases of human trafficking.
Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Anke Rasper