This guest blog has been written by the Immigration Advice Service (IAS).
Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that affects millions across the globe. People are trafficked and exploited in many ways, including being forced into sexual exploitation, labour, domestic servitude and crime. But despite the massive impact that trafficking has, it continues to go largely undetected, with a recent report estimating that in the UK, up to 90% of victims of modern slavery could be going undetected.
The lack of detection of trafficking victims is already a major issue, but COVID-19 is set to exacerbate this further. Countries all over the world have shut their borders or increased control in a bid to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. As a result, criminal human trafficking gangs are finding new ways to exploit the vulnerability of irregular migrants wishing to travel across Europe, and many of those who are struggling financially are being increasingly coerced into forced labour or sexual exploitation schemes.
The treatment of these vulnerable irregular migrants by immigration enforcement is a significant factor as to why victims of human trafficking continue to go largely undetected. Human trafficking and human smuggling are two different crimes, but they often happen along the same routes and have an ability to overlap. Migrants who are forced to use irregular routes become increasingly susceptible to exploitation.
Trafficking in persons was first differentiated from smuggling by the definitions contained in the UN’s Palermo Protocols. These definitions of human trafficking and smuggling distinguish different elements in each, including the presence of coercion and exploitation, transnationality, the purpose of the crime and who the crime is committed against.
Human trafficking is defined as: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
Whilst smuggling of persons is defined as: “The procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”
These differentiations suggest that elements of coercion don’t take place in human smuggling and that the participation of smuggled persons is voluntary. However, there is evidence to suggest that the lines can become blurred. There have been many cases in which migrant smuggling has become human trafficking when a person is exploited during their journey. Although the stories of these victims may not begin with exploitation, the nature of smuggling as a voluntary agreement can be taken away at any point by the smuggler. The use of threats, force or fraud can turn a human smuggling case into one of human trafficking.
Whilst the UN itself also recognises that human trafficking and human smuggling can overlap, their official definitions of the crimes don’t. This has resulted in the domestic policies of countries all over the world, who use these definitions to base their legislation on, also not recognising this issue.
The dynamics of human trafficking and human smuggling are changing, making it more and more difficult to detect trafficking victims and the crossover between smuggling and trafficking is now a bigger issue than ever. This is because unaccompanied migrants along migration routes towards the EU are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the exploitation of traffickers due to COVID-19.
Travel restrictions have had many effects on the way that smuggling is carried out, small boats and freight vehicles are being used at a much higher rate than previous. These dangerous methods leave smuggled persons vulnerable to their smugglers. Travel restrictions have also created a higher demand for seasonal labour, particularly in the agricultural sector, and there is the potential for trafficking to be used to fill this demand.
Reanna Smith is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal team that offers support with a variety of immigration issues including asylum claims and applications for work visas.