Speech at the Conference “Disrupt Demand”

Speech at the Conference “Disrupt Demand”

Dublin, 13 November 2018

Dr Venla Roth, Senior Officer

Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman/National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, Finland

Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

In 2009, an independent rapporteur on human trafficking was appointed in Finland. The Rapporteur has a wide mandate. It stretches from monitoring the laws, policies and practices all the way to international cooperation.

When I started at the Office ten years ago there was only one final conviction on human trafficking. There were only a handful of victims in assistance, and almost no reflection periods or residence permits had been issued. Even though legislation had been amended, the practise was almost completely missing.

Together with other authorities, NGOs and the Parliament, we managed to improve the situation step by step. Today, approximately 1000 victims of human trafficking have been assisted by the authorities and more and more traffickers are investigated and prosecuted.

This autumn, the Parliament of Finland is debating our third report. For that report, we investigated how the law on victim assistance works in practice and whether the victims receive the assistance they should be entitled to. For the study, we collected a large amount of case data and made interviews.

We analysed the information and concluded that one of the most pertinent problems at the moment in Finland is that a significant number of victims do not have the courage to seek assistance from the authorities. NGOs have told us that this year as many as 50 percent of the identified victims have not had the courage to seek help. It is a huge number. Among them there are Finnish victims, as well.

One of the most important reasons for the situation is that the assistance has been made conditional and dependent on the criminal proceedings. If the police decide not to investigate the offence as human trafficking or the prosecutor decides not to charge the perpetrator for human trafficking, the victim’s right to receive assistance can come to an end.

Based on our study, the assistance system seems to be best suited for victims that report the offences to the police, in whose case the criminal proceedings make progress as human trafficking and whose case may result in a court verdict on human trafficking. The close link between assistance and criminal proceedings seems especially problematic for the sexually exploited trafficking victims who are afraid of their traffickers.

To illustrate this problematic, I tell you about a one Finnish case. In that case, a District Court sentenced a person exploiting the victim for human trafficking and the sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal. What happened, however, was that the sentence for human trafficking was overturned by the Supreme Court after several years of a difficult and stressful process. Although the defendant was sentenced for several sexual offences, the victim was no longer entitled to the special assistance tailored for victims of human trafficking. The victim died a few months later. She was a Finnish woman.

Unfortunately, Finland is not the only country, which has the same problem. The European Commission has reported that providing unconditional access to assistance, support and protection to victims remains a challenge for most Member States in the European Union. GRETA committee, monitoring the implementation of the Council of Europe Trafficking Convention, has recognised in its several reports that the close connection between assistance and criminal proceedings is a problem in many European countries.

Why am I talking about this to you? Trafficking in human beings affects especially women and girls. Eurostat figures show that 80 percent of registered victims in the European Union are women or girls. Registered victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly female. It seems to me that whatever we do against human trafficking, it has a particular impact on women and girls.

Internationally, trafficking in human beings has been recognized as a form of violence against women. The European Union recognizes in its political and legal framework that human trafficking is a gender-specific phenomenon and it calls on Member States to adopt gender-specific measures against human trafficking.

I have seen in my work that there are many similarities between human trafficking and other forms of violence against women. The difficulties to respond to them also resemble each other. First, numerous studies have shown that criminal justice system is ineffective in its responses to sexual offences. Many reasons, such as non-identification of the offender, the victim’s wish to withdraw from the criminal procedure and the unsuccessful investigations or prosecutions, explain the situation. The majority of sexual offences have been demonstrated to never come to the attention of the authorities and only a small minority of the victims report to the police. A review of the reporting patterns of human trafficking shows the similar tendency.

Second, the studies show that the stereotypical representations of sexual offences, victims and offenders seem to have negative impact on the victims’ access to justice. The studies have shown that the criminal justice system has difficulties if the crime has not involved physical violence, if it hasn’t led to physical injury or it hasn’t been committed by an unknown offender, for example. The same has been reported to apply to human trafficking. Subtle means used to control the victim in exploitative conditions have proved to be difficult for the criminal justice system to recognize. The Eurojust has reported that the criminal justice system practitioners lack sufficient understanding of the subtle means of human trafficking, including the elements of power and control.

Third, although trafficking in human beings has been widely recognized as a serious violation of human rights and as an offence against sexual self-determination and bodily integrity, the national legislation often sets additional conditions for the trafficking victims to receive adequate and durable assistance and protection. The research shows that the abused women consider seeking assistance and exposing their experiences on violence a difficult decision. We know that violence is traumatizing, and it has a permeating effect on the women’s physical and psychological health and well-being. Other reasons, such as negative experiences of authorities, lack of language skills and social isolation also have a role to play. Reporting violence is difficult – and the additional barriers, such as conditional assistance and insecurity about the residence status, make that decision-making process even harder for the trafficking victims. We should be aware of this. I would call it gender-specific.

Fourth, violence against women, including human trafficking cannot be addressed without examining those contributing factors which create permissive environment for human trafficking. The probability of violence cannot be explained solely by individual criminal acts but by the cultural and social factors that encourage, perpetuate and facilitate violence. The studies show that the correlation between the decriminalization of profit-taking in prostitution and its scale is causally connected to a larger proportion of prostitution in population. According to Europol, “in countries where prostitution is legal or regulated, it is possible that sex work is affected by the demand for cheap labour”, and in those countries “it is much easier for traffickers who wish to use legal environment in order to exploit their victims”. Creating an unfavorable environment for violence, in general, and trafficking, in particular, is thus important and necessary in order to achieve true gender equality.

To conclude, we need to be ready and willing to critically evaluate the work we have done this far. I believe that gender analysis can improve our understanding of why so many victims of human trafficking can never report to the authorities and seek help. Why criminal justice responses seem inadequate and ineffective. What needs to be done in order to serve victims of human trafficking better. Gender analysis can help us explain why anti-trafficking efforts seem to be more ineffective than we would like them to be – and give us means to improve them.

Finally, I would like to thank the organizers of this Conference for inviting me to speak here today. I wish to congratulate the Immigrant Council of Ireland and all the project partners for a great report.

Thank you!