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Reining in Child Trafficking in the New EU

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Reining in Child Trafficking in the New EU

The accession of 10 new Member States to the European Union on May 1, 2004 profoundly changed the political, economic, and judicial landscape in a part of the world where child trafficking is on the rise. In this newly transformed union, new policies, legislation, and efforts to establish an EU Convention Against Human Trafficking present key opportunities to provide special protection to child victims.

Experts estimate that criminal networks traffic up to 120,000 women and children into western European states each year. In the last decade, the trend has been upward and analysts believe that the effect of new more open borders will be more trafficking of vulnerable youth. The majority of the new Member States have become, to various degrees, countries of origin, transit, and destination. To point to just one example, experts estimate that thousands of women and children from the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union are being trafficked via the new Member States, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, before ending up in the older and more prosperous EU states, including Italy and the United Kingdom.

In this underworld of human trade, children are trafficked for prostitution, domestic services, and begging, as well as for work at construction sites, markets, small shops, and factories. Hidden from sight and beyond the reach of the law, these children are sexually abused, exposed to hazardous working conditions, confined to their workplace, and denied education, basic health care, adequate nutrition, and the safety and security of their families and communities. Treated like slaves, countless numbers are exposed to health risks, such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The particular physical, psychological, and psychosocial harm suffered by trafficked children in these situations, as well as their special vulnerability to exploitation, require that they be dealt with separately from adult trafficked persons in terms of laws, policies, programs, and interventions.

At the level of individual EU states, various governments have recently launched pro-child migration policies that could help to dramatically reduce the number of trafficked children and facilitate intervention to head off such exploitation. In Belgium, for example, short-term residency and work permits are available to trafficking victims and can be extended to permanent residency. Given their illegal status and lack of papers, victims often dare not seek justice from local authorities. The improved legal status assurances provided by the new law help address situations in which valuable information on traffickers remains incomplete and the perpetrators unprosecuted. Similarly, a 1998 Italian law provides a renewable six-month residence permit for severely exploited or abused foreign citizens whose safety is endangered by attempting to escape. Their access to the permit is not conditional on providing testimony and sets an important precedent. It ensures a full, transparent, individualized, and independent assessment of their situation. This may include assessing real or potential abuse and vulnerability to reprisals or further abuses should they return home. In both cases, specific provisions for child victims of trafficking ensure special protection for those below 18 years of age, including enrollment in school or access to vocational programs as an automatic element of recovery and psychosocial support.

In March 2004, the European Parliament's adoption of a resolution provided another tool for the support of child victims of trafficking. The resolution specifies that Member States must ensure that unaccompanied minors are given special protection with regard to immediate and long-term shelter. Priority is given to placements with adult relatives and foster families or, as a last resort, in institutions that specialize in accommodating minors or in other forms of accommodation suitable for minors.

Next Steps

While certain EU Member States have already forged ahead with more targeted responses for support and protection of victims of trafficking, other Member States have little or no legislation in place. This has led to a situation where criminal activity is beginning to concentrate in countries with less stringent legislation and could contribute to fragmentation of the EU's response to trafficking.

The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers has mandated a committee to draft a European Convention Against Trafficking in Human Beings, a necessary step to move the EU beyond recommendations to action. Geared towards protecting victims' rights and prosecuting alleged traffickers, the convention would build on the United Nations' efforts in this field in a European context, and would adopt the definition of trafficking in human beings contained in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

The convention would call on EU Member States to prioritize above all the protection of victims, with special safeguards that address children's unique needs. It would seek to make the interests of the trafficked child the primary consideration in all actions, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities, or legislative bodies. Listed in the draft convention are various requisite actions and provisions for authorities. These currently include access to confidential social, health, and psychological care; emergency telephone lines; legal assistance and the availability of translators for the purposes of bringing a formal complaint; safe houses and temporary residence status pending a decision on whether the child stays in the country while attempts to reunify with family or another caregiver are undertaken; and access to education or vocational training for the period the victim spends in the country.

The proposed convention would not, however, eliminate the need to further develop the legal instruments and mechanisms for child protection already used in cooperation programs between government authorities and service providers, such as NGOs that operate shelters or drop-in centers for vulnerable youth. This is particularly true in the all-important countries of origin and transit, whose ranks include many of the new Member States. The effectiveness of the proposed European Convention in protecting the rights of trafficked children requires explicit linkage to the children's rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by all Council of Europe Member States. Reference should also be made to the optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.

Another essential element is continued financial, political, and legal support from Member States for local non-governmental organizations and civil society institutions, particularly those concerned with human rights, gender policies, and access to justice. Improving administrative structures in key sectors, such as law enforcement agencies and judicial bodies, is also necessary. Without such structures, it is difficult to investigate and prosecute those involved in organized crime, including trafficking in women and children.

Finally, cooperation within the new EU to rein in trafficking will be difficult without specific funds from Member States. Much was done in this regard prior to expansion. In particular, the Accession Partnerships (the rules that governed EU-prospective Member State relations in the run-up to accession) attached great importance to the development of administrative and judicial capacities of the candidate countries and the identification of priorities for each country, including the fights against organized crime and human trafficking. One strong example is Italy's annual allocation of 10 billion Euros to support programming in furtherance of their residence permit policy.

These promising examples of pro-child migration policies, both on the books and on the drawing board, are only the beginning of what is required to prevent child trafficking in the expanded EU. The drafting of the text of the treaty by the committee, which is comprised primarily of representatives of Member States of the Council of Europe, is underway. The committee plans to meet three more times before it delivers a draft text to the Committee of Ministers at the end of 2004.

However, multiple strands of child protection are necessary, from the availability of education, to awareness of the dangers of trafficking, to adequate laws or conventions that are enforced. Public and official silence or even denial of child trafficking can only be countered with information. Such efforts require time, partnerships, understanding, and money. Whether the new EU will devote the necessary energy to dealing with the problem remains to be seen.