Most Europeans would agree with the first paragraph of the EU's strategy paper on human trafficking, which describes this hidden, worldwide industry as the "slavery of the modern age." But what they may not know is that the majority of those trafficked in the bloc these days are actually European citizens.
"We often think that the victims of human trafficking are from somewhere far away, but the majority are EU citizens," says Myria Vassiliadou, the EU's Anti-Trafficking Coordinator. "They are bought and sold inside the EU by criminal networks. The clients that use these services are often EU citizens."
According to a report from Eurostat, the bloc's statistical information service, 61 percent of those identified as victims of human trafficking came from EU member states. Also, the majority of cases that were investigated between 2009 and 2013 by the EU law enforcement agency Europol, involved Europeans: 40 percent were from Romania, 18 percent from Hungary and 11 percent from Bulgaria.
Women often targeted
The majority of victims of human trafficking are women, or girls, and a high proportion of them are sexually exploited. In fact, of those registered between 2008 and 2010 by Eurostat, 62 percent had been kidnapped for this purpose specifically.
In addition to law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations play an important role in identifying, protecting and supporting those at risk. In Germany, there are 37 organizations involved in the German Network and Coordination Office Against Trafficking and Violence against Women in migration, also known as KOK.
"It was the non-governmental organizations that put the issue on the political agenda decades ago," says Naile Tanis, KOK's Executive Director. And, it's the NGO groups that now often accompany victims on visits to doctors, lawyers or the authorities, especially when those trafficked want to return to their country of origin, for example.
Tanis says that the official numbers do reflect the situation on the ground. Most victims KOK supports are female and hail from the EU. There are also trafficked people from outside the bloc, especially Nigeria she says, but most of them come from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Poland. There are also German citizens who are being bought and sold domestically too, she says.
Link to prostitution
Irrespective of whether national laws exist to punish prostitutes or their clients, human trafficking and prostitution exists in all 28 EU member states, says Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Vassiliadou.
"The European Commission sees a direct link between human trafficking and prostitution," Vassiliadou says. "Prostitutes are a high risk group."
Forced labor is the second most common reason for a human to be trafficked in the European Union. Other reasons include the trade in human organs, illegal adoptions or forced marriages.
Even if the number of victims of human trafficking has been on the rise over the last few years, the EU suspects that hundreds of thousands of cases remain unreported.
A lot still needs to be done says Vassiliadou. A 2011 directive from the EU outlines the bloc's plans in combating human trafficking. It lists effective following up of criminals involved and the protection of victims as two main goals.
Member states had two years to incorporate the directive into law and administrative processes. But, only 20 nations managed to get it done on time. Germany still has not taken these steps.
Vassiliadou fears that in the next Eurostat human trafficking report, even more cases of human trafficking will be recorded. She says that the current economic situation in many EU states makes people more desperate and heightens the demand for cheap labor and other services.