Labour exploitation and criminal exploitation often go unpunished

Every year, around 23 cases of labour exploitation and criminal exploitation are brought before a judge and just half of these cases result in any of the defendants being convicted: a clear demonstration that the strategy for tackling these types of human trafficking has been substantially less effective than the strategy to tackle sexual exploitation. This is one of the observations of the Human Trafficking Offenders Monitoring Report 2013–2017 of the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children which was published today.

In recent years, criminal cases of exploitation outside the sex industry (a collective term for labour exploitation and criminal exploitation) have often collapsed prematurely as it was uncertain whether the alleged crimes were truly seen as human trafficking in the eyes of the law. National Rapporteur Herman Bolhaar wants the Public Prosecution Service, the police and the Inspectorate for Social Affairs and Employment to ensure more cases of this type are brought before a court of law in order to set a clear legal precedent. ‘Victims of these types of human trafficking are often from migrant backgrounds, do not speak the language and do not know their rights. We must ensure that exploitation of these people does not pay’, explains Bolhaar.

Fewer human trafficking suspects

The annual number of cases registered by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) involving any type of human trafficking has dropped significantly from 257 in 2013 to 144 in 2017. This number should increase in the next few years as the Security Agenda -which establishes new priorities for the police- now mandates that 190 human trafficking cases must be registered by de PPS in 2019, rising to 240 in 2022. Although this has been presented as an intensification of the approach, Bolhaar doesn't believe it goes far enough. ‘This only regains the ground that we have lost in recent years. Offences as serious as human trafficking require crystal-clear and rock-solid standards and precedents, which means a higher number of prosecutions is vital.’ Another noteworthy factor is that one-quarter of all offenders are under the age of 23, with this proportion rising to one-third for offenders of domestic sexual exploitation. For this reason, the National Rapporteur believes it is vital to invest time and attention to prevent human trafficking, especially by young offenders.

Clarity of sentences

The sentences imposed by judges on offenders of human trafficking vary substantially and it is unclear what factors the judges take into account when determining the sentence. For example, it is not possible to determine whether exploitation of minors, for which the legislature mandates increased sentences, actually results in tougher sentences being imposed in practice. According to Bolhaar, greater clarity regarding the sentences is extremely important in order to facilitate the imposition of appropriate and consistent sentences. He recommends an investigation by the Minister for Migration to examine the conscious and subconscious factors that play a role in judges' decisions.

Time for results

A large number of measures were announced at the end of 2018 upon publication of the Together against human trafficking action programme, which was devised following a collaboration between four different ministries. The National Rapporteur is happy with the excellent work that many organisations have done in order to combat human trafficking, although he is critical of the fact that the plans stipulated in the action programme are not easily measurable. ‘There is no plan to monitor the results and it is not even possible to get a clear picture of the entire reactive offender-focused approach right now’, says Bolhaar. As a result, he says there is no insight into what factors do or do not result in a criminal investigation being launched, and the effect of new initiatives such as administrative law interventions cannot yet be measured. Also, there is no estimate of the total number of people committing human trafficking offences. ‘For any professional involved in the fight against human trafficking, information like this is vital for learning and improving the strategy’, explains Bolhaar. ‘Ambitious plans have never protected a single victim or brought down a single offender on their own, so we must work extremely hard to ensure effective implementation of the proposed policy in practice.’