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Venla Roth's speech at the 2017 Colloquium on Fundamental Rights. Brussels, Belgium 20 and 21 November 2017

Address at the 2017 Colloquium on Fundamental Rights. Brussels, Belgium 20 and 21 November 2017.

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Over the past two decades, a great deal of progress has been made in the action against human trafficking in Europe. Nevertheless, Why is there still such a wide gap between estimated and identified human trafficking? Why are the victims not seeking help from the authorities even when they have the chance to do it?
  2. In my impulse statement, I will argue that one of the most important reasons for the low number of identified trafficking victims, investigations and prosecutions is the strong link between assistance and criminal proceedings. The assistance available to the victims is often conditional and depends on the result of the criminal proceedings. I will also argue that this strong link is especially detrimental to women and girls who constitute the majority of trafficking victims in Europe.
  3. First, two true stories to demonstrate how the system serves the trafficking victims. In a case in Finland, the District Court sentenced a person exploiting the victim for human trafficking and the sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal. However, the sentence for human trafficking was overturned by the Supreme Court. Even though the defendant was sentenced for several sexual offences, the victim was removed from the special assistance system for victims of human trafficking. The victim died a few months later. She was an ordinary Finnish woman of young age.
  4. In another case, the Finnish authorities decided not to extend the residence permit of a foreign victim of human trafficking who had been exploited in Finland. The reason was that the defendant in the case had already been sentenced for human trafficking and the sentence was final. There was no longer any need for the victim to stay in Finland because of the criminal proceedings had come to an end. The victim was sent back to the home country.
  5. In Finland, it is the criminal proceedings that determine whether the victim will receive assistance or not and how long. I argue that because of this strong link between assistance and criminal proceedings very few victims of human trafficking seek assistance from the Finnish authorities. Studies from other countries have also shown that few victims of human trafficking want to seek assistance from the authorities. This is regrettable from the perspective of the victims themselves and society at large. The victims continue to be exploited and the efforts to prevent human trafficking will fail because the authorities do not even know about the situation in the country.
  6. There are good reasons to argue that the action against human trafficking in Finland has even discriminatory effects on the ground of the victim’s gender. Trafficking in human beings is a highly gendered phenomenon, which disproportionately affects women and girls. This is particularly so in the case of trafficking for sexual exploitation. The gendered nature of trafficking for sexual exploitation, and that of the physical, psychological and social harms which arise as a result for women and their children, situate human trafficking within the wider continuum of violence against women.
  7. Human trafficking is, however, almost non-existent in the European and Finnish agenda of gender equality and violence against women. I find it regrettable. The Finnish National Rapporteur has, for example, addressed the issue of Nigerian women who are in large numbers sexually exploited in various European countries, including Finland.
  8. The context in which we discuss the issue is not only theoretical or ideological. As we know, the framework defines the means to tackle the social problem. I argue that the context of violence against women would help us recognize the similar psychological dynamics of human trafficking and other forms of violence against women. The context of violence against women would prevent us from creating or maintaining stereotypical, even harmful images of trafficking victims and to enhance victim identification and criminal proceedings. If viewed in the context of violence against women the so-called choices of the trafficking victims could become legally more comprehensible – why did she not actively resist, why did she not escape?
  9. When we are assessing the current action against human trafficking within the framework of violence against women, the situation of the trafficking victims looks difficult. It is hard to imagine that any other victim of such violence would be denied assistance and protection because the case is no longer investigated, no charges are filed or the court rejects the charges. As we know, the case cannot always be investigated, taken to a prosecutor or the perpetrator cannot be sentenced for human trafficking or sexual offences because of the reasons beyond the victims’ control, such as problems with evidence or an interpretation of the law.
  10. Scholars studying violence against women call such procedures institutional violence in which the state creates vulnerabilities and prevents the victims from receiving assistance. From the perspective of the victims of human trafficking, the laws regulating the activities seem rather restrictive. Who would be prepared to be an instrument and live in uncertainty about the future?
  11. To conclude, are we happy with a situation where we can only help the selected few? I argue that we need to critically analyse the institutional factors that cause the victims to shun us. We should ask ourselves what kind of a system we actually want to build and by what means we seek to tackle human trafficking. It is time to make use of the lessons learned from other forms of violence against women in the field of action against human trafficking. Thank you.