Monday, March 12, 2012

Not prostitutes but sex slaves

Times of Malta
Friday, March 9, 2012
By Grace Attard

The recent case of a man charged with trafficking women for sexual exploitation has given visibility to such human rights crimes that for the past 10 years have been given little or no attention by the authorities.

"Alleged cases of trafficking of human beings have always eluded justice."
- Grace Attard

As far back as 2006,the National Council of Women worked with the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs to take steps to review national legislation in order to separate what we term as “traditional” prostitution from “trafficking of women for ‘sexual exploitation’ or ‘sexual favours’”.

Women who come to Malta, mostly from Russia and Eastern European countries, are not prostitutes. They are often enticed by the myth that in Western Europe there is a better life. Coming from a life of poverty and no opportunities for employment, they are often offered the choice to work in the entertainment business.

The disillusion sets in when it is too late, when they start working and are gradually forced into providing sexual favours, pocketing a very small share of the earnings. They often end up as “slaves”, losing their freedom and sometimes are not even allowed to leave the place of accommodation provided for them. Visa permits that expire after six months are taken from them.

These activities are part of a vast ring of organised crime including drug trafficking. Mediterranean and eastern Mediterranean countries are used for such illicit activities and this makes it easier to get rid of them without leaving any traces.

In 2007, the NCW called for stronger measures to address these issues in a more comprehensive manner. It asked the Attorney General’s Office and the police to review and propose reforms on procedures dealing with the identification of victims of human trafficking before prosecuting.

Despite the existence of a number of legal ways to combat the exploitation of persons, especially women and children, a universal instrument that addresses all aspects of trafficking in persons was needed. Its aim is to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. The Palermo Protocol, as it is more commonly known, supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

The treaty and its protocols were drafted by a special committee involving more than 120 UN member countries and adopted in November 2000 by the Millennium General Assembly. They were opened for signature at a high-level meeting in Palermo, the following month and will go into force after 40 governments have ratified them.

The purposes of this protocol are: to prevent and combat trafficking of persons; to protect and assist the victims of such trafficking with full respect for their human rights and to promote cooperation among state parties

The UN Trafficking Protocol entered into force on December 25, 2003. By 2006, it had been signed by 117 states and ratified by 110.

The Palermo Protocol, which Malta has signed and ratified, clearly states that “trafficking in persons means the ‘recruitment, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat, use of force or other forms of coercion, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of vulnerability or of giving or receiving payments of benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation’”.

Concrete action to address the issue at EU level has been of concern both to the European Parliament and to the European Commission. On December 14, 2010, the Commission appointed Myria Vassiliadou to serve as Anti Trafficking Coordinator.

The appointment of an anti -trafficking coordinator provides for an overall strategic and policy orientation in the trafficking of human beings, to improve coordination and coherence between EU institutions and agencies as well as with member states and international actors.

The anti-trafficking coordinator is contributing to the elaboration of existing and new EU policies relevant to the fight against trafficking in human beings, in particular in relation to third countries. By bringing together prevention, law enforcement and victim protection, she will ensure that all appropriate means for EU action against trafficking are adequately used and mobilised.

At the end of February (coinciding with the recent case of human trafficking), the NCW together with human rights organisations met the Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking of Human Beings (GRETA) who were in Malta monitoring the local situation to evaluate the situation of member states that have signed and ratified the relevant Council of Europe Convention.

The meeting served to raise a number of issues that need urgent attention.

As a member of the European Network Against Trafficking in Women for Sexual Exploitation (ENATW), the Council has been following court cases dealing with both crimes – trafficking and sexual exploitation – but which are treated separately according to national law. Often, in such cases the alleged criminal is punished for sexual exploitation, which does not reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Alleged cases of trafficking of human beings have always eluded justice. In one particular case, this happened because of a mistake by the prosecutor who quoted the wrong letter of the relevant article, referring to trafficking of goods rather than of human beings.

As a result, the charges were dropped. Russian women victims involved in this case remain unaccounted for till this very day. The NCW tried several times to encourage witnesses to come forward and meet journalists, however, they refused at the last minute out of fear.

This case is significant because, so far, no individuals have been accused of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, whether because of lack of adequate law enforcement or because of lack of evidence.

Malta needs to ensure legal protection and forms of support social structures, as set out in the Palermo Protocol and the Council of Europe Convention, for young women who are victims of organised crime and also for witnesses.

To serve as a deterrent, there is need for hefty penalties for all those involved in the chain of organised crime, including individuals financing such activities.

The Malta representatives working with the anti-trafficking coordinator need to establish contact with NGOs working in this field. A review of the task force set up to monitor the local situation is a must and, if necessary, its remit widened to secure more effective results. This includes working with the police and immigration officers on the need to harmonise regulations for immigrants suspected of being trafficked, identifying places where women were being forced to work in the sex industry and also following court cases on trafficking and illicit employment in unlawful sex services, forced return to countries of origin and immigrants who were unaccounted for and untraced before and after such cases.

The NCW also urges the government to focus on the issue of demand, which has been addressed in some countries through legislation to criminalise the buying of sexual favours along the whole chain. This should be adopted in Maltese legislation as a crime against human rights.

The author is first vice president of the National Council of Women and member of the European Economic and Social Committee.