Conference puts focus on human trafficking, fastest growing criminal industry

News Stories, 11 October 2010

© UNHCR/R.Nicolle
Participants at the conference in Lille highlighted the dangers of human trafficking in northern France and the mechanisms necessary to identify and help the victims.

LILLE, France, October 11 (UNHCR) Government officials, judiciary members, police officers and humanitarian aid workers have expressed concern, during a conference in northern France, about victims of human trafficking, the world's fastest growing criminal industry.

The UN refugee agency, which co-organized last Thursday's gathering in Lille with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), was particularly concerned about unaccompanied children. The young can be ensnared by trafficking rings, which, unlike human smuggling groups, move people against their will in order to exploit them.

"We are particularly worried about the unaccompanied children who find themselves in this situation and who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. It is very difficult to keep track of them and we don't know what happens to them once they leave France," Véronique Robert, acting UNHCR representative in France, told participants.

The trafficking of human beings is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world and the fastest growing, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Some 12.3 million people around the world have been victims of the scourge. Many of them suffer exploitation, abduction, incarceration, rape, sexual enslavement, enforced prostitution, forced labour, removal of organs for transplant, physical and psychological torture and other serious abuses.

Thursday's conference looked at human trafficking from northern Europe into the United Kingdom, with a focus on the French port of Calais. Speakers included the prefect of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, Jean-Michel Berard, and French Advocate General Yves Charpenel.

Representatives from British law-enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations involved in the rescue and protection of victims also took part in the conference, which reviewed existing support mechanisms to assist victims of trafficking in the United Kingdom and France.

"Although we have no data on the number of migrants who fall prey to trafficking networks in and around the port city of Calais, we know that many end up in situations of exploitation, in some cases to pay criminal networks who lure them into believing they can be smuggled across the [English] Channel," said Maurizio Busatti, head of the IOM mission in Paris.

"We are aware of women being brought into the UK from various countries of origin, including but not limited to Vietnam, China and eastern Europe, via French ports, having been promised employment opportunities," said Sally Montier from the UK's POPPY Project, which works with victims of trafficking.

"Once they arrive in the UK they are forced to work in prostitution, domestic slavery and other forms of labour exploitation and forced criminal activity such as cannabis cultivation," she added.

Montier said these people should be viewed as victims of gross human rights abuses and not as immigration offenders and criminals. "Victims need to be afforded time and support in order to recover from their experiences and begin to rebuild their lives… failure to do this and immediately returning victims to their country of origin can result in victims being re-trafficked, further fuelling the cycle of abuse and criminal activity," she added.

Human trafficking is often confused with the smuggling of migrants. While both are illegal activities, the main difference is that smugglers assist people to cross borders in exchange for money, while traffickers keep a stranglehold over their victims through the use of force, coercion or deception in order to exploit them.

Not all victims of human trafficking are refugees, but refugees frequently have to rely on smugglers or traffickers, with both preying on their vulnerabilities. Other victims of trafficking may also become refugees because they are unable to return to their countries of origin for fear of being stigmatized for their forced participation in sex work, for instance, or may risk being re-trafficked.

By William Spindler in Lille, France

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