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BRUSSELS OFFICE : +32 (0)2 895 5909

Pictured: The Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg

The trafficking challenge


With human trafficking clearly linked to the continuing high levels of irregular migration into Europe, PEN speaks to Petya Nestorova, executive secretary of the Council of Europe’s GRETA

Migration and the challenges associated with irregular migration remain at the top of the agenda in Europe today. Designed to curb the scourge of human trafficking, the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings has been in force since 1 February 2008. Amidst the efforts to take on trafficking networks, and protect victims, the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) monitors the countries that have signed up to the CoE convention.

In its fifth general report, published on 16 March, GRETA warned that there are widespread gaps in the identification and protection of victims of trafficking among asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, with particular focus in the report falling upon unaccompanied minors. The CoE expert body has warned that many minors go missing shortly after being placed in reception centres, leaving them exposed to further trafficking and exploitation.

Indeed, GRETA has urged 36 out of the 40 European countries evaluated so far to improve the identification of child victims of human trafficking, and the assistance and protection provided to them.

With the migration crisis continuing, PEN spoke to Petya Nestorova, executive secretary of GRETA, about the work of the organisation and how the challenges surrounding human trafficking have deepened and evolved in recent years.

With the GRETA report warning that more must be done, what is the outlook regarding countering human trafficking in Europe today?

We do not know how many of the people arriving in Europe are already being trafficked, and how many will ultimately fall into the hands of traffickers. Migrants are in a very vulnerable situation and many have ran into debt through financing their journeys; today we simply do not know enough to have a clear outlook. At the moment, it is a mixed migration flow with little screening for trafficking indicators. All that is being done is the registration of asylum claims, with hardly anyone having been formally identified as a victim of trafficking. Amongst those arriving at the EU’s borders, the majority aim to continue to move on to other countries where they hope to stay.

The onus of identifying victims of trafficking lies with the authorities. The lack of attention to trafficking indicators in the country where migrants lodge their application for asylum results in failure to uncover traffickers. Therefore, they continue what they have been doing with new victims.

The CoE has been working here for a number of years. Is there a greater role for EU institutions to play in tackling human trafficking – improving co-operation with the CoE?

Yes, I do believe there is greater scope for more co-ordination and interaction. GRETA recently met with Frontex – the EU border agency – to discuss ways of improving the detection of victims of human trafficking.

The issue of unaccompanied children is a big concern for everyone involved in these matters. Indeed, on 4 March the secretary general of the Council of Europe published proposals for priority actions for the protection of children affected by the refugee crisis. The EU has also stressed that it is a priority to look at these unaccompanied children.

In dealing with migrant and asylum-seeking children, countries must uphold the principle of non-discrimination on any ground and the best interests of the child, in the same way as they apply to a national child, with the same rights and protections including a legal guardian. Today, these obligations are not being met, with countries failing to respect their international legal obligations as well as national legal rules. In reaction, one idea that the CoE is now discussing within the context of the new strategy for the rights of the child, is to offer guidance for all CoE member states on how to treat unaccompanied children – following a

co-ordinated child rights-based approach – in accordance with the best interests of the child. This approach will help to prevent children from going missing. For example, we are looking at best practices in the appointing of legal guardians, who will look after the best interests of the children. There are some countries where this is working better than in others, and we are working to promote these good practices across CoE countries. Yet today, it is clear that there is great scope for the CoE and EU to work together more on these matters.

Are there enough resources and policy tools in place today to confront the challenges posed by human trafficking?

Having visited countries such as Bulgaria, ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ and Serbia with GRETA, it was clear that even a few years ago the authorities were struggling to cope with the previously much smaller numbers of unaccompanied children. At this very moment, the resources – both financial and human – are clearly inadequate. Even prior to the onset of the migration crisis last year, we noticed that unaccompanied children were disappearing within days of arriving in the country. Now there are thousands of children arriving in these countries, the situation is much worse.

Looking to the future, what are the key topics on the agenda for the year ahead?

GRETA has a clear work programme – with 12 countries scheduled this year for periodic evaluation. We are just about to evaluate Belarus. For the first time we will evaluate Greece this year as it joined the convention recently. We do have the possibility to make urgent interventions. When there is a particular situation of concern to GRETA, we have a procedure whereby – in addition to the periodic country visits – we can send urgent requests for information, if necessary, followed by a visit.

At the moment, we are in the process of launching this procedure in respect of a number of countries, and putting some important questions to the authorities. In particular, we are concerned by the treatment of unaccompanied children. In light of the replies that we receive, GRETA may decide to arrange visits, which of course must be agreed with the authorities.

Unaccompanied children are a problem across Europe, but a particular one in the countries that become their final destination, such as Germany or the UK. These are the countries where the exploitation takes place. The whole multi-agency approach is needed to make sure these children are not abused or exploited. It cannot be dismissed that they are exploited en route to destination countries; yet we know of thousands of cases where children who after arriving in their country of destination are made victims of sexual or criminal exploitation. Unfortunately legal systems often fail these children once the exploitation begins.

Pan European Networks Ltd