What is the difference between trafficking and smuggling? Can technology help turn the tables? How strong are legal protections worldwide? Just a few of the questions put to migration expert Dr. Melissa Siegel ahead of World Day against Trafficking in Persons, 30 July.
What is the difference between trafficking and smuggling?
MS: The question of what’s the difference between trafficking and smuggling is a really important one and with this important day and having a focus on trafficking, it’s really important for us to understand this distinction, because they’re too often blurred. With regard to trafficking the important component here is that there is an element of coercion, exploitation, in the movement process. It means that people don’t have the right information for the movement. They could have chosen to have the movement but they could not have agreed for the terms for which to end up on the other side.
So it can be something as extreme – probably what most people think about – as being kidnapped and moved – that’s probably the most extreme case – to something less extreme, like someone absolutely deciding to move, for instance from Ethiopia to Dubai, but thinking that they’re going to work in domestic service and be paid a specific amount, but when they get there, maybe their passport is taken away and the terms under which they work are completely different from what they agreed to.
There’s coercion and exploitation within that process so we would consider that as trafficking. It’s often the case also that first a smuggling movement could end up in a trafficked situation at the end of the day. So it’s important to understand that there is a whole kind of a continuum along a trafficking line. But absolutely, these terms are too often blurred. Smuggling is really a chosen movement. Trafficking has to do with coercion and exploitation.
We’re obviously talking about vulnerable people. Who are the most vulnerable?
MS: I think the most vulnerable people here are usually women and children. Other important vulnerable groups would be migrant labourers, very obviously they are those who are likely to end up in a situation, those who are working on building sites or agricultural work, and those in domestic work in homes that are less visible.
A quarter of those trafficked work in the sex industry. Is that correct?
MS: Well ILO has some different estimates here. ILO estimates that 21 million people are victims of forced labour. Of this, about 11 – 11.5 million are women and girls and the rest are men and boys. What’s also important to note here is that we know that labour exploitation or labour trafficking is generally much more than sex trafficking. However sex trafficking gets much more press.
Of course sex trafficking is kind of a “sexy topic” and it’s something that people can get behind and of course everyone agrees that being moved for the purpose of sexual exploitation is extremely negative and wrong so it’s something that policymakers and the media pick up much more than labour exploitation. But we know that labour exploitation is a really key phenomenon, especially in areas such as the Gulf, so south-Asian migrants moving the Gulf especially in the construction industry. Of course that’s not the only place where labour exploitation takes place but it’s a really important topic that is absolutely under-discussed and I think it gets way too little attention in the global debate.
There’s a convention in this respect. How far have we come with ratification worldwide?
MS: I think that the important here is that we have a convention against transnational organised crime and the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. I think it’s important to know that that’s there.
Many countries have actually ratified this protocol but the real problem comes in implementation and bringing the traffickers to justice, basically. We know that even in countries where this is ratified, where this is put into legislation – which is still an issue in many countries, many countries still don’t have this yet in their legislation – but even in those that do, the rate of conviction is extremely low and this is for multiple reasons: one is the burden of proof with regard to the trafficking situation, many legal systems also cannot handle this very well.
Another important issue is that victims don’t want to bring their traffickers to court because that means that they have to completely relive the whole situation again, bringing up a lot of really negative memories that they don’t want to deal with. And sometimes the process is extremely lengthy, we’re talking about five, 10 years, where this process can draw on.
And we also know of many instances in which traffickers’ families or organised crime units also intimidate victims into not prosecuting. So all of those things make it very difficult for in the end to have a conviction which means actually that trafficking pays to some extent, which is why we see the problem continuing because we have really ineffective mechanisms at the moment to bring justice in these areas.
Trafficking is big business, with powerful interest groups preying on vulnerable people worldwide. Can technology be used to turn the tables?
MS: I think this is an area where absolutely we really need to be looking into. New technologies can help a lot, particularly in forced labour. I know there are organisations right now who are looking into new technologies in reporting atrocities for example, and I think here even an app or an online forum that is easy for a migrant to access would be a great tool to try to bring more awareness to the subject and also much more reporting.
Many countries don’t have embassies or consulates that are easy for their workers to get to and have very low capacity to do something about that, but if there’s some kind of complaint mechanism on a smart phone, on a tablet, online, where people can automatically upload a picture about something that has happened to them or an immediate first account or eye witness account of something that has happened, and that this goes to some kind of global database, that can be moved on quickly, I think that could really revolutionise at least the area of forced labour absolutely trafficking to some extent there so new technologies, absolutely an area where we need to be moving forward in.
Could UNU contribute to these technological solutions?
MS: I do think that the UN and UNU more generally could really help push in this area by partnering with some of the key players here so ILO is working in the field right now exploring areas with others, definitely – it’s not only ILO actually, be clear about that – to try to bring new technologies into the field and finding out better complaint mechanisms.