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Summary

Under European Union legislation, trafficking of human beings constitutes a human rights violation and is prohibited.  EU Member States play a critical role in the identification, prevention, and protection of victims of trafficking and the prosecution of perpetrators.  Under European Court of Human Rights case law, states of the Council of Europe have a positive obligation to put in place an effective legal framework against human trafficking and take protective measures.  Training of officials who come into contact with victims of trafficking is legally required and is an indispensable tool in ensuring that such officials are better able to identify victims of trafficking.  A number of EU agencies provide training and other support to Member States in identifying trafficking victims.

I.  Introduction

The European Union, in its efforts to eliminate human trafficking, has developed a comprehensive strategy by adopting legislation to criminalize human trafficking, formulating policy documents, funding programs, and establishing the office of the European Anti-Trafficking Coordinator.[1]  Key priorities of the EU’s policy are to prevent human trafficking, facilitate identification of trafficking victims through proper training for those who are likely to come into contact with victims or potential victims, and support and protect such victims.  EU Members are legally required to train those officials who come in contact with victims of trafficking in order to facilitate and speed identification of victims.  The Commission provides funding to various projects that deal with the issue of identification of victims of trafficking.[2]

In general, the EU is a destination region, with many of its Member States being transit and source countries, especially those who joined the EU more recently.[3]  A 2015 report of the Statistical Office of the European Union highlights the extent of the trafficking phenomenon across Europe.[4]  The report provides statistical data, as submitted by national authorities of the twenty-eight EU Member States, and from Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland, and Turkey.  According to key findings of this report, during the period of 2010–2012, 30,136 people were registered as victims in the twenty-eight Member States.  Of these, 80% were women and 1,000 were children trafficked for sexual exploitation.[5]  In spite of the global dimensions of the trafficking problem, more than 65% of registered victims in the EU are EU citizens.[6] 

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II.  Legal and Policy Framework on Human Trafficking

A.  General Overview

The EU derives its power to legislate in the field of trafficking from the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).  Under article 79 of the TFEU, the EU may enact rules in order to combat illegal immigration and human trafficking, particularly trafficking involving women and children.[17]  Moreover, trafficking of human beings is a human rights violation and is prohibited by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.[8]

The main EU legislation on human trafficking is Directive 2011/36/EU on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims.[9]  Directive 2011/36/EU establishes common rules regarding the definition of “trafficking” and sanctions against perpetrators.  It also includes common provisions designed to prevent trafficking and to protect victims.[10]

In addition, the legal framework on human trafficking is complemented by two directives: (a) Directive 2012/29/EU, which establishes minimum standards on the rights, support, and protection of victims of crime;[11] and (b) Directive 2004/80/EC Relating to Compensation to Crime Victims.[12]  The latter requires Member States to create compensation schemes for victims of intentional violent crimes in cross-border cases and specifies that compensation must be paid by the competent authority of the Member State on whose territory the crime was committed.[13]

Under EU asylum legislation, victims of trafficking are deemed a vulnerable group and are entitled to special measures.  A 2014 study prepared by the European Migration Network, Identification of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings in International Protection and Forced Return Procedures, contains practical guidance and advice to Member States in handling applications for international protection (asylum or subsidiary protection) or when enforcing return decisions that involve victims of trafficking.[14]

The EU’s policy to combat human trafficking for the period 2012–2016 is contained in a document titled EU Strategy Towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings 2012–2016 (Strategy Document).[15]  The EU Strategy document focuses on certain priorities and outlines a number of measures the Commission has undertaken in cooperation with EU institutions, Member States, international organizations, third countries, and the private sector.  The identification, protection, and prevention of trafficking in human beings are among the top priorities.

The Strategy Document urges the Member States to (a) take all measure to ensure early victim identification, and provide protection and assistance; (b) boost prevention of human trafficking; (c) establish National Multidisciplinary Law Enforcement Units that could be used as contact points with EU agencies, such Eurojust and Europol; (c) include a wide variety of actors in policy-making decisions, such as police officers, border guards, immigration and asylum officials, public prosecutors, lawyers, members of the judiciary, and housing, labor, health, social, and civil society organizations; and (d) create operational National Referral Mechanisms (NRMs) describing procedures to better identify, refer, protect, and assist victims.[16]

In 2013, and in compliance with the targets set in the EU Strategy Document, the Commission published EU Rights of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings, which is available in all EU languages.[17]  EU Rights of Trafficking Victims is a practical and simplified guide that explains the rights of such victims, inter alia related to assistance and support, health care, labor rights, access to justice, and compensation, that derive from EU legislation and court decisions of the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights.[18]  

At the international level, in 2001 the then European Community signed the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols on Combating Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea.[19]  Moreover, EU Members as members of the Council of Europe are required to ratify the Convention on Actions against Trafficking in Human Beings. [20] In a 2010 case interpreting the convention, the  European Court of Human Rights, in Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, which concerned  the death of a Russian woman who was trafficked from Russia to Cyprus and  found dead in Cyprus, found against Cyprus for failing to protect the victim and investigate her death. Russia, as the country of origin, was found by the ECHR to have failed to adequately investigate the manner in which the victim was trafficked from its borders.[21]

B.  Main Aspects of Directive 2011/36/EU

Directive 2011/36/EU requires that EU Member States criminalize the following acts when committed intentionally:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or reception of persons, the exchange or transfer of control over those persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.[22]

Member States are required to ensure that victims of human trafficking are not prosecuted or given penalties for being involved in criminal activities in which they were compelled to participate.[23]  In addition, Member States must ensure that the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators does not depend on reporting or an accusation made by the victim of human trafficking.[24]

The penalties range from a maximum of at least five years to a ten-year maximum when the offense is committed against a particularly vulnerable person such as a child victim, was committed within the framework of a terrorist organization, involved gross negligence that put the life of the victim in danger, or has caused serious harm to the victim.[25]

During criminal investigations, victims of trafficking are granted certain rights under Directive 2011/36/EC and Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA.[26]  Member States are required to ensure that trafficking victims have access to legal counseling and representation free of charge when they cannot afford it.[27]  Moreover, Member States must ensure that victims have access to witness protection programs or other similar measures, in compliance with national law,[28] and in the case of child victims of trafficking and especially unaccompanied child victims must take special measures to assist and support them, based on the special circumstances of each child and taking into account the best interests of the child.[29]  In criminal investigations and proceedings that involve child victims, Member States must appoint a representative when the parents of the child are prohibited from representing the child due to a conflict of interest between the parents and the child.[30]  

In 2011, the European Commission appointed the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator (EU ATC) with the mandate to improve cooperation and coordination among EU institutions, EU agencies who deal with trafficking, the European Asylum Office and Frontex, and Member States in implementing the EU legislation on human trafficking.[31]  In order to achieve a coordinated EU strategy, Member States are required to cooperate with the EU ATC and facilitate its mandate.  A key requirement for the Member States is to transmit the reports drafted by National Rapporteurs under article 19 of Directive 2011/36/EC on the progress made on actions taken against trafficking, statistical data, and any trends in trafficking to the EU ATC, which will forward the reports to the Commission for progress evaluation.[32]

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III.  Role of Member States

Prevention, protection of victims, and bringing to justice the perpetrators of human trafficking are implemented and enforced by the Member States, which were required to transpose Directive 2011/36/EC into their national legal systems by April 2013.  They were also required to report to the Commission the actions taken to implement the provisions of the Directive.  The Commission in its monitoring of the implementation of Directive 2011/36/EC initiated infringement proceedings against several Member States in 2013.  An interim report by the Commission on the implementation of Directive 2011/36/EC indicates that by 2014, twenty-five EU Members had notified the Commission on transposition measures concerning the Directive.[33]

The Directive requires that competent national authorities involved with victims or potential victims, such as police officers, border guards, immigration officials, public prosecutors, members of the judiciary, lawyers, labor inspectors, and social workers, cooperate in combating human trafficking, including sharing information and best practices.[34]

In compliance with the Directive, EU Members have established national rapporteurs or equivalent mechanisms.[35]  The rapporteurs must be mandated to follow trends in human trafficking, assess the effectiveness of various programs implemented, gather statistics, and report on human trafficking issues.[36]

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IV.  Training Programs

A.  European Asylum Office

The European Asylum Office (EASO), as the EU agency responsible for asylum issues, is also tasked to assist vulnerable groups within the framework of asylum and trafficking.  The EASO’s core mission is to support Member States through, inter alia, common training and the development of training materials.[37]  Within the EASO, the Officer on Gender and Vulnerable Persons is in charge of victims of trafficking throughout all EASO activities.[38]  In 2014, the EASO updated its prior training on interviewing vulnerable persons to include cases where applicants for international protection are victims of trafficking.  The updated training guide is titled Practical Guide: Personal Interview.[39]

B.  Training of EU Border Guards

Frontex, the acronym for the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, comes in contact with victims of trafficking during border-control procedures and, hence, plays a key role in the identification of victims and traffickers.[40]  In 2011, the Frontex Training Unit developed the Anti-Trafficking Manual for European Border Guards, which has been translated into fourteen EU languages.[41]  The manual is designed to raise awareness of human trafficking as a serious crime and human rights violation, and to train border guards to identify and deal with potential victims of this crime.[42]  The training manual comprises three training areas: Awareness, Identification, and Interviewing.  The Awareness training is designed to improve the understanding and knowledge of the human trafficking problem in general, and in particular as a human rights violation.  The Identification training is intended to improve the ability of border guards to identify potential victims of trafficking and suspected traffickers.  The third part, the Interview process, is designed to assist second-line experts determine whether a person is a victim of human trafficking.[43]

A reference document entitled Guidelines for the Identification of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings[44] prepared by the Commission is designed to assist and facilitate border guards and consular staff who come in contact with victims to better be able to identify such victims. 

C.  Europol

Europol is the EU’s law enforcement body and as such it supports Member States in preventing and combating all forms of serious international crime and terrorism.  Europol provides support to law enforcement personnel of the Member States concerning human trafficking investigations through operational support, access to criminal databases and other analytical tools, and sharing of intelligence information.[45]  Europol, which is currently under reform, will assume more powers on fighting organized crime, including human trafficking.[46]

D.  Law Enforcement Personnel of the Member States

EU Member States are required to actively engage in preventing human trafficking.  To achieve this objective, Directive 2011/36/EC requires Member States to take the necessary measures to train, educate, and initiate awareness-raising campaigns jointly, where appropriate, with civil society organizations and other partners to eliminate human trafficking.[47]

With regard to training law enforcement personnel, the Directive requires that Member States “shall promote regular training for officials likely to come into contact with victims or potential victims of human trafficking, including front-line police officers,” in order to enable them to identify victims of human trafficking.[48]

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Prepared by Theresa Papademetriou
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
February 2016


[1] EU Actions Explained, European Commission, Together Against Trafficking in Human Beings, http://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/citizens-corner-eu-actions-explained/eu-actions-explained_en, archived at https://perma.cc/GH2U-QRYA.

[2] EU Projects and Funding, European Commission, Together Against Trafficking in Human Beings, http://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/eu-projects/_en?solrsort=ds_field_publication_date%20desc, archived at https://perma.cc/E5LH-NN3F.

[3] European Commission, The EU Policy to Fight and Prevent Trafficking in Human Beings, Directorate General, Justice, Freedom and Security, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Trafficking/Dakar_ Protection_Gert_Bogers.pdf (last visited Feb. 14, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/8DCP-PRQU.

[5] Id. at 13.

[6] Id.

[7] Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, 2012 O.J. (C 326) 47, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A12012E%2FTXT, archived at https://perma.cc/2MES-ASJT.

[8] Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union art. 5, para. 3, 2012 O.J. (C 326) 391, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT, archived at https://perma.cc/CTJ4-56ABF

[9] Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 April 2011 on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting Its Victims, and Replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/629/JHA, 2011 O.J. (L 101) 1, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:101:0001: 0011:EN:PDF, archived at https://perma.cc/U8RU-CAZR.

[10] Id. art. 2.

[11] Directive 2012/29/EC of the European  Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 Establishing Minimum Standards on the Rights, Support and Protection of Victims of Crime, and Replacing Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA, 2012 O.J. (L 315) 57, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2012:315: 0057:0073:EN:PDF, archived at https://perma.cc/VBB3-PV6.

[12] Council Directive 2004/80/EC of 29 April 2004 Relating to Compensation to Crime Victims, 2004 O.J. (L 261) 15, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2004:261:0015:0018:en:PDF, archived at https://perma.cc/D8RU-FTYF.

[13] Id. art. 2.

[14] European Migration Network, Identification of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings in International Protection and Forced Return Procedures (2014), http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/networks/european_migration_network/reports/docs/emn-studies/emn_study_identification_of_victims_ of_trafficking_web_140909_en.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/RY6N-LT9S.

[15] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, The EU Strategy Towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings 2012–2016, COM (2012) 286 final, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX: 52012DC0286, archived at https://perma.cc/SG7E-P4BN.

[16] Id. §§ 2.2–2.4.

[17] European Commission, The EU Rights of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings (2013), http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/e-library/docs/thb_victims_rights/thb_victims_rights_en.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/PDL3-DLJY.

[18] Id.

[19] Council Decision 2001/87/EC of 8 December 2000 on the Signing, on Behalf of the European Community, of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and Its Protocols on Combating Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea, 2001 O.J. (L 30) 44, https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/decision_2001_87_on_un_convention_en_1.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/WJ68-DMD4.

[20] Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, CETS No. 197, https://www.coe. int/t/dghl/monitoring/trafficking/Docs/Convntn/CETS197_en.asp, archived at https://perma.cc/NTM4-PB6Y.

[22] Directive 2011/36/EC, supra note 9, art. 2.

[23] Id. art. 8.

[24] Id. art. 9.

[25] Id. art. 4.

[26] Council Framework Decision of 15 March 2001 on the Standing of Victims in Criminal Proceedings, 2001 O.J. (L 82) 1, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2001:082:0001:0004:en:PDF, archived at https://perma.cc/P5S9-9CPY.

[27] Directive 2011/36/EC, supra note 9, art. 12, para. 2.

[28] Id. art. 12, para. 3.

[29] Id. art. 14.

[30] Id. art. 15.

[31] Myria Vasssiliadou: EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, European Commission, European Commission, Together Against Trafficking in Human Beings, https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/eu-anti-trafficking-coordinator_en (last updated Feb. 15, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/38CN-LZAF.

[32] Directive 2011/36/EC, supra note 9, art. 20.

[33] Commission Staff Working Document, Mid-Term Report on the Implementation of the EU Strategy Towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings, COM (2014) 635 final (Oct. 2014), http://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/commission_staff_working_document_-_mid-term_report_on_the_imple mentation_of_the_eu_strategy_towards_the_eradication_of_trafficking_in_human_beings.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/2EMD-ECU2.

[34] Directive 2011/36/EC, supra note 9, Preamble, para. 25.

[35] Id. art. 19.

[36] National Rapporteurs and/or Equivalent Mechanisms, EC, Together Against Trafficking in Human Beings, https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/national-rapporteurs_en (last visited Feb. 14, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/8CGR-ZHQZ.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.; EASO Practical Guide: Personal Interview (Practical Guide Series, 2014), https://easo.europa.eu/wp-content/uploads/EASO-Practical-Guide-Personal-Interview-EN.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/272C-AUZQ.

[41] Combating Human Trafficking at the Border – Training for EU Border Guards, FRONTEX (Oct. 18, 2012), http://frontex.europa.eu/feature-stories/combating-human-trafficking-at-the-border-training-for-eu-border-guards-rRzpfI, archived at https://perma.cc/8Z6S-TJQV; see also, FRONTEX, Fundamental Rights Training for Border Guards: Trainer’s Manual (2013), http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Training/ Fundamental_Rights_Training_for_Border_Guardsl.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/U433-PRVJ.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] European Commission, Guidelines for the Identification of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings (2013), https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/guidelines_on_identification_of_victims_1.pdf, https://perma.cc/CH9T-H6L9.

[45] Mandate, EUROPOL, https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/page/mandate-119 (last visited Feb. 15, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/FNH3-5QDQ.

[46] Press Release, European Parliament, Europol: Deal on New Powers to Step Up EU Police Cooperation and Fight Terrorism (Nov. 30, 2015), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20151130IPR05456/Europol-deal-on-new-powers-to-step-up-EU-police-cooperation-and-fight-terrorism, archived at https://perma.cc/957A-HQHZ.

[47] Directive 2011/36/EC, supra note 9, art. 18, paras. 1 & 3.

[48] Id.

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Last Updated: 03/18/2016