A view of the Vienna Human Trafficking Conference. Credit: Austrian Foreign Ministry - Photo: 2023

Vienna Conference Considers Boundaries and Frontiers in Human Trafficking

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA | 29 October 2023 (IDN) — Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings remains a global phenomenon that requires intensive collaboration between governmental and non-governmental entities. Interdisciplinary cooperation, awareness raising, and proactive efforts on national, regional, and international levels are essential in this context. An effective preventive measure is the professional exchange of expertise among anti-trafficking practitioners.

The fight against human trafficking has been one of the main priorities of Austria’s foreign policy since the establishment of the Task Force on Combatting Human Trafficking in 2004. The Task Force has organized the annual conference since 2007 in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the OSCE, and, for some years now, the Principality of Liechtenstein.

This year’s Vienna conference focused on “Boundaries and Frontiers in Human Trafficking”. The topic encompasses a variety of differentiations, limitations and prospects. Even the typology of human trafficking itself is characterized by distinctions from and overlap with related phenomena, such as smuggling of migrants and other illegal practices, which coexist with human trafficking and may hamper victim identification.

The distinction between human trafficking and other emerging forms of exploitation is an important point for discussion. The concept of territorial borders is omnipresent not only in the context of the war against Ukraine but also in the relations between human trafficking, irregular migration and refugee flows. The limits of what is possible—also for perpetrators of human trafficking– have been lifting rapidly through the development of communication technologies and systems. Simultaneously, new forms of committing offences, such as identity theft and fraud, are spreading through the ubiquity of complex IT systems.

Breaking the chain

EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Diane Schmitt emphasized that to break the chain is to raise awareness.

Every year, over 7000 victims of human trafficking are identified in the EU. This is only the “tip of the iceberg”. The real number of victims is much higher, as many remain undetected. This is already the first boundary: detection and identification. Persons coming into contact with a victim may not recognize the signs and sometimes the victims themselves are afraid to ask for help. There is an invisible chain that links traffickers and victims.

“The first step to break the chain is to raise awareness. Making citizens, including potential victims, aware of trafficking in human beings contributes: to preventing the crime from happening at the first place, to detect and help victims as well as to stop traffickers and bring the to justice,” stressed EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Diane Schmitt during the conference at Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Awareness raising, together with training and demand reduction for services of victims of trafficking, can make a difference, continued Schmitt. A clear example is the preventive measures put in place by the different stakeholders at the national and European level to protect those fleeing military aggression against Ukraine. Thanks to these measures, trafficking cases are very low.

The chain that links traffickers and victims is even more invisible in the digital space. The frontiers between what is happening online and offline are disappearing. Nowadays, almost every trafficking case has an online dimension. It is important to ensure that what is illegal offline is also illegal online.

When we speak about the online dimension, we often think about sexual exploitation. However, we should not ignore other forms of exploitation. Victims are recruited online for labour exploitation or forced to commit criminal activities.

The online element appears as at least one element in the steps of human trafficking

Ilias Chatzis, Chief of the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pointed out that human traffickers have been quick to integrate technology into every phase of their operations. In 2003, they had one case related to cyber trafficking, and today the internet always appears in human trafficking in at least one form, from the recruitment of victims to the “selling” of services and the laundering of illicit profits, the internet has often become a readily available tool of choice.

“At UNODC we have documented how traffickers for example, create fake websites, post advertisements on legitimate employment portals or take advantage of social networking and dating platforms. Through methods such as ‘hunting’ or ‘fishing’, they actively target specific groups of people and individuals in need,” stressed Chatzis.

In half a dozen cases, victims are contacted from fake profiles, and after they are brought to another country, their exploitation begins. For example, they are looking online for young educated people from the IT sector, offering them jobs in Asia with excellent contracts. However, when the victims get there, the employer takes their passports and says that the contract has changed. Then they exploit them for online scam jobs. Today more than 60 percent of victims are recruited online.

“Today, it will be hard to find a human trafficking case that does not involve some form of online technology. Future success in eradicating this crime will depend on how countries are equipped to match the level of digital expertise employed by the traffickers,” explains Chatzis.

Illegal prostitution and the Corona crisis

An indispensable fact is that the perpetrators have victims from their country of origin, whether they are dancers in night clubs, waitresses or models who have been given false promises. Since people are transported from one country to another, they often take a private loan for this logistics, and they cannot get out of this debt.

Often the same organized criminal networks are behind different crimes, making a lot of money. While the competent authorities might focus on the criminals behind migrant smuggling or drugs trafficking, they should not forget that in their operations they might come across victims of trafficking who need protection.

Illegal prostitution flourished particularly during the Corona period and has continued to flourish until today. That is when prostitutes withdrew from public places and brothels and started working in their private apartments. This practice has continued today. They themselves can set up their profile on online platforms and work from their home. Claudia D. from the Viennese Department for the Investigation of Human Trafficking and Prostitution pointed out that the situation requires that a minor in prostitution be automatically treated as a victim.

In the EU, sexual exploitation represents the majority of trafficking cases. At the same time, labour exploitation is on the raise as are other forms of exploitation. We can see more and more the link between trafficking in human beings and other crime areas: migrant smuggling, drugs trafficking, organ removal, fraud, corruption, and money laundering.

Gerald Tatzgern, Head of Central Service Combating Human Smuggling, Human Trafficking and Prostitution at Criminal Intelligence Service Austria, pointed out that investigations into human trafficking are extremely difficult because the affected person is evidence by itself. This often implies a lack of proof materials and traces. Tatzgern pointed out that people who have been exposed to trafficking can be protected, but this is difficult if the channel of the attack is via the Internet. With the development of technology, the criminal milieu also developed its tools in the virtual world.

In addition to the aforementioned experts, the task force was addressed, among others, by Ghada Waly, Director General of the United Nations Vienna, Volker Turk UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Petya Nestorova Executive Secretary, Secretariat of the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: A view of the Vienna Human Trafficking Conference. Credit: Austrian Foreign Ministry

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 29 October 2023.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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