The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings requires States Parties to adopt measures to assist victims in their physical, psychological and social recovery, taking into account their safety and protection needs. These measures apply to all victims in a non-discriminatory manner – women, men and children, whether subjected to transnational or national trafficking, regardless of the form of exploitation and the country where they were exploited.
Ten years after the entry into force of the Convention, GRETA’s monitoring work shows that there are continuing and serious gaps in the availability of assistance measures adapted to the needs of victims. GRETA has decided to dedicate a thematic chapter to the provision of assistance to victims of human trafficking in the 8th General Report, published in May 2019.
GRETA has stressed that the provision of timely assistance to victims of trafficking is essential for encouraging them to remain in the country of destination for long enough to serve as witnesses in trials against traffickers. Victims of trafficking should be given the opportunity to play a role in criminal proceedings against traffickers, if they so wish, and to receive compensation. Further, measures to improve victim support should include consultation of survivors of human trafficking to ensure that their needs are adequately met.
GRETA has noted that in countries primarily of destination, there may be gaps when it comes to the legal basis and related funding for assisting victims who are the country’s nationals. Conversely, countries primarily of origin may have gaps in the assistance of foreign victims of trafficking. Regardless of the legislative approach taken, GRETA has stressed the positive obligation on Parties to provide assistance to all victims of trafficking without discrimination and to secure the necessary funding for the purpose.
In most Parties, admission to the victim assistance system is not dependent on the existence of a criminal investigation. However, GRETA is concerned by indications that the provision of assistance to victims of trafficking hinges on their co-operation with law enforcement authorities, even though the link does not exist formally. GRETA has made recommendations to the authorities of several countries to guarantee access to assistance irrespective of the victim’s readiness or capacity to co-operate with police/prosecution.
Due to the gendered nature of trafficking, in many countries, anti-trafficking policy and practice has focused on women and girls. Most assistance services, including shelters, are designed and tailored to the needs of female victims, in particular those subjected to sexual exploitation. However, not enough resources are available to assist female victims of other forms of exploitation. The situation of women who have children can also be particularly challenging, given the risks of secondary victimisation of children.
The number of male victims of trafficking has been on the rise across State Parties to the Convention due to the proliferation of cases of trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation. The second evaluation round has brought to light some improvements in certain countries when it comes to assisting male victims of trafficking. However, there is still a marked shortage of assistance projects for male victims of trafficking.
GRETA has noted that the needs of female and male victims often differ and assistance measures offered to them should take into account their specific needs, bearing also in mind the type of exploitation to which they were subjected. Vulnerable women should not be housed with men they do not know or random acquaintances. International best practice suggests that persons who have experienced trafficking for sexual exploitation should be accommodated in specialised shelters, following a gender-sensitive approach.
GRETA’s evaluation reports point to a shortage of safe and appropriate accommodation for victims of trafficking. Gaps in victim support services typically include lack of specialised shelters, limited number of places in shelter accommodation, uneven availability of accommodation and services in different parts of the country, lack of long-term options for survivors who continue to need assistance, and inadequate funding.
In some countries, there are shelters especially set up for victims of trafficking, while in others assistance is provided in shelters or crisis centres for victims of domestic violence. GRETA has stressed the importance of differentiated approaches to victims of trafficking and victims of domestic violence.
The absence of specialised shelters for child victims of trafficking is a common problem in most Parties to the Convention and GRETA has urged the authorities to provide appropriate accommodation for child victims. Because of the absence of specialised facilities or a shortage of places in specialist child-welfare institutions, child victims of trafficking are sometimes placed in detention institutions. GRETA has stressed that any detention of children should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible period of time.
Material assistance is intended to give victims the means of subsistence because many victims, once out of the traffickers’ hands, are totally without material resources. The risks of exploitation of victims of trafficking struggling to make ends meet are considerable, especially for those with mental or physical disabilities or experiencing discrimination based on age or gender.
Medical assistance is often necessary for victims of trafficking who have been exploited or have suffered violence. The assistance may also allow evidence to be kept of the violence so that, if they wish, the victims can take legal action. While the identification process is on-going, emergency medical treatment must be guaranteed to all victims of trafficking, regardless of citizenship or legal status. Full medical assistance is only envisaged under the Convention for victims lawfully resident in the Party’s territory who do not have adequate resources and need such help. In several countries, GRETA has made recommendations to either make provision for victims’ access to emergency medical care or to improve the existing access.
GRETA has noted that in general, more information is needed for victims of trafficking, including children, regarding their legal rights and obligations, the benefits and services available and how to access them, and the implications of being recognised as a victim of trafficking. Law enforcement officers do not always properly explain to victims their rights even if they are legally obliged to do so. This concerns in particular the right to a recovery and reflection period and the right to protection of privacy and safety.
GRETA’s reports highlight the value of a lawyer being appointed as soon as there are reasonable grounds for believing that a person is a victim of trafficking, before the person makes an official statement and/or decides whether to co-operate with the authorities. Early access to legal assistance is also important to enable victims to undertake civil actions for compensation and redress. In practice, victims are largely dependent on NGOs for the provision of specialised legal aid, whereas NGOs are dependent on donors who are willing to fund legal assistance or lawyers who are willing to work pro bono.
Many victims do not speak, or barely speak, the language of the country they have been brought to for exploitation. Ignorance of the language adds to their isolation and is one of the factors preventing them from claiming their rights. The provision of translation and interpretation, where needed, is an essential measure for guaranteeing access to rights, which is a prerequisite for access to justice.
While access to psychological assistance forms part of the package of assistance measures to which victims of trafficking are entitled by law, in many countries there are lacunae when it comes to the practical implementation of this provision, such as delays in access to psychiatric and psychosocial support, or shortage of psychotherapists able to deal with trauma.
Depending on the trafficking experience, some trafficking victims may return to their countries and families/communities of origin, while others have to integrate new countries or communities. In some cases, return, even when voluntary, will not be possible, owing to on-going safety and security concerns or humanitarian considerations, which is why States should have the capacity to provide both short-term and long-term solutions as alternatives to return. The Convention requires State Parties to enable victims of trafficking who are lawfully present in the country to have access to the labour market, vocational training and education.
GRETA has stressed in its country evaluation report the need for measures to facilitate long-term assistance and (re)integration of victims into society, including through vocational training and facilitating access to the labour market. GRETA has noted a lack of systematic monitoring of the long-term impact of available programmes on the (re)integration of victims. At the same time, GRETA has highlighted some promising practices in some countries. Further, GRETA has stressed the need to develop public-private partnerships with a view to creating appropriate work opportunities for victims of trafficking.
Children should not be returned to their countries of origin if there are no guarantees that the family or special institution will provide for the child’s safety, protection, long-term care and reintegration. The particular vulnerability of children, who may be trafficked by their own families or persons from the same community, calls for additional safeguards to ensure their recovery and (re)integration.
The Convention explicitly recognises the role of civil society organisations in fulfilling the purposes of the Convention, including when it comes to the provision of assistance to victims of trafficking. Most countries have set up an institutional form of co-operation with specialised NGOs providing support to victims. In some countries, the provision of services to victims of trafficking is delegated to NGOs who are selected through public tenders or are subject to some form of licensing procedures. When assistance is provided by different service providers, including NGOs, the national authorities must ensure that minimum standards are guaranteed to all victims of trafficking across the country, regardless of the service provider and the victim’s place of residence, and that adequate funding is provided to maintain them. Further, there should be an effective supervision of the observance of the quality standards.
Finally, GRETA is concerned that in some countries the regulation of the activities and funding of NGOs may unduly impede their ability to engage in assisting victims of trafficking, and consequently inhibit the building of strategic partnerships between the authorities and civil society with the aim of achieving the purpose of the Convention.
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