Since the late 1990s I have been committed to establishing, implementing, and monitoring anti-trafficking legislation and policies. This includes a six-year tenure as United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons especially women and children, which ended in July 2020. As many people will already be aware, the prevention of and fight against human trafficking has also been closely linked with the struggle against slavery. When the 2000 Palermo Protocol on trafficking was negotiated it was motivated by a desire to define and address trafficking as a modern form of slavery.
After twenty years of visiting, monitoring, and learning about experiences in many countries, I have serious concerns about the effectiveness of anti-trafficking legislation and policies, and about the degree to which they align with a human rights-based approach. To my mind, the key issues are:
- Human trafficking and slavery tend to be interpreted on restrictive terms, and the number of criminal proceedings for both trafficking and slavery remains very low world-wide. The consequence has been not only widespread impunity but also the denial of victims’ rights.
- Prevention is not really addressed, or is limited to awareness raising campaigns. These are not always useful, since many neither address the right audience nor send the right message.
- The gendered dimension of trafficking, and the role of patriarchal structures in the production of women’s vulnerabilities, are usually not understood.
- Trafficking for labour exploitation is only rarely addressed within established law enforcement anti-trafficking paradigms.
- Victim identification rates remain very low worldwide. States have failed to identify trafficked persons among mixed migration flows, and governmental support measures for trafficking victims are often limited to short-term assistance and do not ensure full social inclusion of survivors.
- While civil society-led activities are generally inspired by a human rights-based approach, government-led anti-trafficking actions have contributed to further violations of victims’ rights. For example, multiple governments have established so-called ‘closed shelters’, where victims are supposed to be protected but are actually subjected to ad-ministrative detention.
- Finally, and importantly, remedies are very rarely awarded to victims of trafficking or slavery. As a result, the promise of a human rights-based approach ends up being nullified, since the right to receive compensation as an outcome of criminal or other judicial proceedings is rarely realised in practice. This is one of a number of reasons why victims are not encouraged to come forward and report exploitation.
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