Europe – a dream for many and a goldmine for human traffickers. E&M talked to one of the trafficked victims and to the EU crime intelligence agency, Europol, trying to understand how our borderless dream has become a haven for criminals.

“I will pass out any minute if I have to continue harvesting in this heat,” he thinks. The last time he ate was yesterday. Or the day before? With only three or four hours of sleep per night, the days intertwine in his memory. But the foreman is merciless; anyone who stops working, even if it’s just for a minute, will be punished. “God, please, help me escape! I have to get home, somehow!” But before he can even make up a plan, he is sold and transported to work on yet another plantation, in yet another corner of this foreign country with its foreign language…

This is not the story of a black slave in the year 1785 on Saint-Domingue (former Haiti). This is happening in Southern Spain, today.

Most Traffickers remain unpunished

Human trafficking is one of the longest established, yet most neglected problems in Europe. A report published by the United Nations shows that this illegal business is actually growing and more than 140,000 people are currently estimated to be victims of forced labour in Europe. The Report on Trafficking in Human Beings in the European Union (2011), compiled by Europol, defines the crime of Trafficking as “the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by criminals who deal with people as commodities to be traded for the sole purpose of financial gain.”

“The UN estimates that human trafficking, which is a form of modern slavery, is the third most lucrative crime worldwide; right behind drug trafficking and the trade of weapons,” David Ellero, counter-trafficking project manager at Europol told E&M.

“Europe is a big hub for traffickers; no country in the Union is actually not affected in some way. Some are source countries; some serve as transit and others as destinations. To which categroy you belong depends partly on your socio-economic situation,” Ellero said. “It would, however, be a mistake to believe that trafficking victims are all uneducated and poor. We also have cases of academics; girls who were promised a model career; British citizens who pick up young drug-addicts from the street to force them to work in road construction in Scandinavia.” But the essential principles are the same in each case: victims are first deceived and then exploited.

In their attempt to tackle human trafficking in Europe, Europol and specialised national police forces face a number of difficulties.

“Before joining the counter trafficking unit at Europol, I was a homicide officer in Naples. I handled Mafia cases; in Naples we have the Camorra. Believe me, that was no easy job, but acting against trafficking is more complex. No matter which type of legislation you choose, it can be circumvented. If you try to abolish child trafficking and forced begging by forbidding children to beg, they will sell flowers instead.

Photo: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime | 84% of victims were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The estimated profit made from the sexual exploitation of trafficked victims is around two million euros per year.

But here comes the next difficulty: to prove a trafficking case. Because in many cases the victims themselves work against you! Many of them don’t realise that they are victims. Imagine a dozen Chinese people working 21 hours a day in a Polish textile company; they see themselves as migrants, paying off their debts for the trip from China which was probably covered by the traffickers. When the police arrive they are hostile and afraid of being deported. In a case of drug traffic, as soon as you have the cocaine, you have the case. But with human trafficking, the object of investigation is a person and this person might lie to you. Every time you question her, she tells you a different story.”

The difficulty of defining and recognising human trafficking has serious legal consequences. The EU lacks a common definition of the crime – in some countries cases are reigstered as human trafficking if it can be proven that the victims have been purchased; in some others the victims need to cross national borders. If the conditions are not fulfilled completely, cases are merely seen as illegal prostitution rather than sex trafficking, or illegal migration rather than exploitation of trafficked workers. Therefore, in spite of the very high estimated number of victims in Europe, only very few cases are brought to court – the most recent statistics, published in 2006, show that only 1500 cases were filed that year in the Union! Most traffickers very likely remain unpunished.

As ironic as it sounds, although the openness of our borders is not the only reason, it may help aggravate the problem.

Europe is a big hub for traffickers; no country in the Union is actually not affected in some way.

“Open borders didn’t really trigger [human trafficking]… but of course they have made the trafficker’s life much easier. Schengen is a fantastic opportunity, but unfortunately, it’s a fantastic opportunity for everybody.” The agreement signed between the Schengen countries entails a complete lack of systematic border controls during which police officers could theoretically look out for trafficked victims. Moreover, Ellero suggests that cheap air fares and the rising socio-economic inequalities between countries also contribute to the problem.

The majority of human trafficking victims in Europe come from the Balkans and the former USSR, particularly Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Moldova. However a substantial number of trafficked victims, especially women and girls, have been brought from South America, and their main destinations are Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. Here is one victim’s story…

Ana and her European nightmare

“I was so young when I fell in love with my husband; not even 20. And I was pregnant … Today it seems unbelievable to me, but it took me nearly 3 years to find out where he actually went when he left home to work at night.” When Ana finally found out that the man she was married to spend the hours until dawn managing one of Quito’s countless brothels, she felt stupid, shocked and madly jealous.

Sitting at my kitchen table, stirring slowly the cup of tea in front of her, she now smiles sadly when she remembers the young and naïve woman she was. “You know, he tricked me into it! You must understand; I wanted to know what he was doing with all these girls. And I thought the only way to control him was to be part of his nightlife. He told me it would just be a bit of dancing… Now I know that it never is just ‘a bit of dancing’… Probably you can’t imagine, but back then I was young and I had beautiful long, black hair.”

Allowing her husband to prostitute her did not stop him from cheating. So, one day, after a terrible fight, she took her 3-year-old daughter, moved to her mother’s and decided to change her life. “There was this woman; she had a little beauty parlour. All the girls used to go there to get a haircut because she was the cheapest. Her son lived in Spain and she always used to tell us about Europe. ‘Even dog-sitting,’ she said, ‘you can become rich!.'” For the prettiest girls she had a special offer: if they decided to try their luck, her contacts in Europe would help them gain a foothold over there. She even offered to pay for their plane ticket: “Don’t worry about it,” she said, “you will have earned three times as much in the first month and then you can pay me back when you return to Ecuador.”

Photo: hans-johnson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0 |
“It would be a mistake to believe that trafficking victims are all uneducated and poor.” Many educated victims are promised well-paid jobs in Europe

Europe… Perhaps she would find something in Barcelona? Or Paris! Ana had seen pictures of these cities and they became engraved into her mind, representing a fresh start, a decent job, money to send home and perhaps even a bit for herself to enjoy her new life… These images were so powerful, so attractive, that Ana decided to leave her little daughter behind with her mother and told her she would be back in a few months.

“They said we would arrive in France and gave us a piece of paper with an address on it that we should hand over to the taxi driver at the airport. That made sense; I didn’t speak French at all, you know. But they told me to wrap the address in plastic and hide it in my mouth during the whole trip. And over and over again they repeated that I shouldn’t talk to anybody, until I got to that address where I would be safe. It seemed weird, I remember, but I thought; ‘Well, after all, this is a completely different country…'”

Ana did not return to Ecuador until 3 years later.

“As soon as I got there [Paris], things turned bad. I was received by two girls and three transvestites and they told me that there was no job for me in Paris other than working as a prostitute. And because they paid for my trip, they said, I had debts with them. So, I should better start working right away, otherwise…”

“In Paris, there was a certain park where men went to look for prostitutes. Everybody knew. There were many Latinas, actually, but solidarity didn’t exist among us. Every girl fought for her space. Me too… I just couldn’t go back to my pimp without money; he would have killed me, you understand?” Sometimes Ana was lucky and they brought her to a nightclub: rather than serving her clients leaning against a tree, in a club she would at least be protected against the rain. But at the end of the day Ana never got to keep the money she made, everything went to her ‘owner’ and with the rest she paid for food, laundry, and the niche where she slept.

But they told me to wrap the address in plastic and hide it in my mouth during the whole trip. And over and over again they repeated that I shouldn’t talk to anybody; absolutely nobody.

“In the beginning, they told us that it would just be a matter of weeks, until we had repaid everything. But one year later, I still had debts.”

It’s not as if Ana had not tried to escape. After the first eight days she managed to run away and went straight to the airport. “I remember I had a two-way ticket when I came. I went to speak to the lady behind the counter and told her that I wanted to leave immediately and go back home. She didn’t understand any Spanish, so a young man approached us and translated. In the end, I was told that I had to wait for two months. He tried to cheer me up: ‘Don’t worry – Paris is such a beautiful place! You’ll see, in the end you’ll love it…”

She couldn’t turn to the police either. “Our owners were well connected, even with the French cops. When they found out that one of my friends tried to report our story, she disappeared. After that happened, none of us dared to say a single word,” Ana recalled. “The traffickers decided for us where we had to work, what we had to do and with how many men. After one year, they sent me to Italy, without any previous notice.”

Things had gotten precarious in Paris, so the trafficker network which had caught Ana decided to move some of their more dangerous ‘goods’ to Italy. Once there, Ana was locked in a brothel, where she worked sometimes up to 20 hours per day, barely ever leaving the house.

“In Italy I managed to earn a bit of money on the side. Sometimes, when they let me out to take fresh air, I could sell my body without them knowing and keep the money to myself. I don’t want to think about what they would have done to me if they had ever found out…” It took one year for Ana to save enough money to pay for a trip back to Paris. One night, she escaped from the brothel and from those people who had imprisoned and exploited her, beaten her up and abused her for over two years now.

“My life didn’t change that much when I came back to Paris. I still didn’t speak French and I still worked as a prostitute. I didn’t know what else to do.” But at least she worked for herself and she had a clear goal that kept her going: to buy a plane ticket. But not long after Ana had returned to Paris, she was picked up by the police and taken to the local prison.

Photo: shoebappa (flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0 |
Paris, among many European cities, is seen as the symbol of the European dream, before many trafficked victims realise that they were sold here to be prostitutes.

“The traffickers instruct you very well on how you have to respond to police inquiries; they give you a story and make you repeat it over and over again until you know it by heart… I was afraid; I didn’t want any trouble, so I just denied everything.” In the end, they let Ana go but told her that her documents were invalid and that she should leave the country immediately. Go somewhere, wherever, just don’t stay here. “I remember walking out of that police station; scared, desperate… and so, so tired. What should I do? How could I ever reach home if I they wouldn’t at least allow me to earn some money?”

Ana looks up from her tea cup, probably for the first time since she sat down in front of me, and says: “But God exists, you know, even if sometimes it is difficult to believe. And He sends us angels, when we need them most. At that moment, I really needed one. I was wandering around the streets of my neigbourhood, crying, and so hopeless, when a young French guy approached me, worrying about me… He spoke Spanish, so I told him my story; after all, I had nothing to lose.”


    • Studies from Ukraine showed that 11% of female victims were trafficked with the active cooperation of their husbands.
    • 187 – the number of convictions for human trafficking offences in Romania, one of the biggest sources in Europe
    • 70% of victims from Ukraine were lured by promises of work, modelling opportunities or marriage services among others.
    • Roughly 40% of trafficking victims in Europe come from outside Europe, including the former USSR, Africa, South America and East Asia.

I’ve heard by now so many of these stories; stories like Ana’s. They are all different but very similar in the most important respects. All of them are narratives of crashed hopes, lies, violence and desperation. But while I’m writing this down, I can just marvel at this “young French guy,” whose character is the miraculous exception in this tale. Thanks to him, Ana could almost be called a darling of fortune…

“Bastian literally picked me up from the street, brought me to his house, where he lived with his wife and their little baby. And he gave me a job. They sold apples, so I put stickers on each apple before they were sent out; that was all. I earned little but good money. And in the evenings, I taught their baby boy some letters. Our letters, you know, because they only really knew the French ones…” Ana lived, slept and ate for nearly nine months with the family. Bastian just had one condition in exchange: Ana should not go back to work on the streets. “Anyway, that would have been too dangerous! I only left the house at night, to take a walk. But most of the time I spent indoors to hide from the police and from the pimps. After all, Bastian was also running a great risk! Just imagine if one of the traffickers had recognised me… Believe me; you don’t want any trouble with those people.”

In Europe they exploit you when you are illegal and they have no respect for you at all […] I will never, ever set foot in Europe again.

Almost three years after Ana had left Quito, the day came when she had finally saved enough money to buy a plane ticket and return home. She has never told anybody at home what happened to her; not until today. The few times she had the chance to call her family from Europe, she lied out of shame and out of fear. “When I came back, I was changed. You know, Europe is not like Ecuador. In Europe they exploit you when you are illegal and they have no respect for you at all. After a while you become as egoistic and bad as the people you meet. When I came back, I behaved aggressively and rude, even towards my own daughter!”

I can’t quite imagine how, but Ana has somehow managed to stop hating and resenting and became a nurse. “I think, God has put us in this world for something. Everybody has some talents, and mine is to care for older people. I like that and I’m happy today. However, I will never, ever set foot again in Europe…”

What is Europe doing to prevent human trafficking?

According to Europol, coordination between member states in order to confront the crime is however quite effective and new strategies are constantly being developed on the European level. International conventions such as the ‘Palermo Protocol‘ or the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings, signed in 2008, have substantially increased awareness amongst law makers, law enforcement and the judiciary across Europe. As recently as April 2011, the new Directive on trafficking in human beings has been published, which aims at harmonising the legal response among European member states. On an operational level, a new and promising method of investigation into trafficking networks is to focus on suspicious financial transactions or influxes of money in order to identify the criminals. Yet, we must go back to the source of the problem.

Photo: Ewan McIntosh (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

“If you ask me what we still need to do, I’d say that the most important thing is to tackle the demand, especially in the case of sex trafficking. It’s the customers who trigger the crime,” Ellero said.

“Every country has developed its own approach to discourage the demand. In Sweden, prostitution is strictly forbidden and they actually criminalise the purchase of sexual services. In the Netherlands prostitution is legal because they hope to control it better that way. They tackle the problem of demand mainly by awareness campaigns and have a lot of outreach with the girls. Some countries have a hotline, where the prostitute’s clients can report if they suspect the woman to be a trafficking victim.

“In my opinion, the best strategy is to train police officers to look for the trafficking case behind each case of exploitation, however it materialises.”

But all these measures have not yet stopped human trafficking from happening in Europe. Ana’s story is just one of many cases of human trafficking which happen, literally under our noses, every day.

Cover photo: IraC (Flicrkr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

You May Also Like

The end of the Merkel era

As the Germany Presidency of the Council of the European Union begins on 1st ...

Flop European

Free speech is one of the most important and cherished ideals in European democracies. ...


Top European

During Europe’s ongoing crisis, two countries have taken giant steps to come closer to ...