Activists warn that human traffickers could exploit recent changes in European Union travel laws. Non-EU citizens with long-stay visas are now allowed to travel freely throughout the Schengen zone.
Could more free movement encourage people smugglers?
Patsy Sorensen has been helping human trafficking victims across Europe escape lives of extreme poverty and abuse for more than 20 years. She says their traffickers often arrive in Europe on three-month visas but use forged documents to continue operating. New rules agreed to by the European Union may make it easier for the criminals to do their business without detection, she fears.
The bloc decided this week to allow non-European holders of long-stay visas to travel freely across the 25 countries of the Schengen zone, where border controls no longer exist.
Sorensen argues that the new rules will allow criminal gangs to exploit the open borders without fear of being caught.
"What we see is that people are coming in, in one of the Schengen areas, officially, normally, with good papers - for example with a work permit, or as a student," Sorensen said. "And then when you are in Schengen, you can travel around, sometimes for years, without a control."
Exploited and vulnerable
Sorensen's base is the Belgian port city of Antwerp, where she heads the non-profit organization Payoke. It offers shelter to victims of sexual and economic exploitation: men, women and children who have been severely abused by the people-smuggling networks that brought them here.
Patsy Sorensen founded Payoke
Their stories are so sensitive, their lives so vulnerable, and their identities so closely guarded, reporters are forbidden from talking to the victims themselves.
For life in a shelter is no guarantee: some end up returning to their exploiters, fearing revenge attacks on their families; others are kidnapped back into the same criminal gangs that shackled them. Only a small minority, said Sorensen, come forward by themselves - often because they have heard they can get help to establish legal residency, a difficult and lengthy process that can take up to three years.
In the last few years, the number of victims from mainland China has overtaken the number from eastern European countries and from Nigeria - especially the number of female victims. Sorensen says the Chinese victims referred to Payoke's shelters by the police or social services are usually rescued from restaurants, where some have been locked up for months on end.
Payoke also monitors sudden changes in the flow of smuggled victims, which often match a labor shortage in certain sectors.
Sorensen said Chinese criminal gangs have gone mysteriously quiet in recent months, but there are still people coming from Bulgaria and Romania. And she said increasing numbers of people from Thailand could be connected to the increasing popularity of Thai massage salons.
As a non-governmental organization, Payoke has no access to Schengen's data-sharing system, which European Commission spokesman Michele Cercone says has been significantly strengthened by individual member states.
Although Cercone acknowledges that criminals might use a single-entry visa to enter Europe, he strongly rejects the charge that open borders make life significantly easier for human trafficking gangs. He argues that an international problem requires international solutions.
"It would not make sense to fight a criminal organization involved in human-being trafficking at member state level, because they don't operate at EU member state level and they never did," said Cercone.
Cross-border cooperation is essential for Schengen states
"They are operating at regional level, at European level, or often at more international level, so what we need is [to operate on] a different level to fight them."
The European Commission insists cross-border cooperation is improving, and there are plans to boost the stunted powers of the EU's border agency Frontex, which has so far struggled for lack of equipment and personnel. The Commission now wants member states to pledge resources to Frontex a year ahead of any operation - and to stick to that commitment.
Members of the Schengen zone have also promised to share information on long-stay visa holders to help keep track of their residency status. Officials in Brussels insist that known criminals will be closely monitored.
Room for improvement
But Sorensen says more needs to be done in the fight against human trafficking. She identifies an acute need for more joint police investigations and cross-border training, so national police forces can use the same tools to identify victims. And she notes her organization has often identified known criminals who have returned to Belgium under a different name before the police could.
"I see a lot of people who are sent back to their home country because they have a criminal record in Belgium, but they are coming back with another paper and are here now again, under another name, with a nice passport," said Sorensen.
That's why critics suggest Schengen's data information system is not working as well as it could.
Without more effective cross-border cooperation, it may be impossible to fight a rise in human trafficking and organized crime.
Author: Nina-Maria Potts
Editor: Nancy Isenson