Human Trafficking in Europe

As thousands are trafficked each year into Europe, three southern European countries stand out among EU member states for their policies aimed at preventing this terrible crime from spreading and identifying vulnerable victims among the flow of migrants

Judging from the news headlines, one would be inclined to think that human trafficking is a recent or emerging phenomenon. In reality, human smuggling as a modern phenomenon has existed for decades, inextricably linked to migrant movements and the government policies that attempt to regulate them. Shockingly, there are more than 20.9 million victims of trafficking worldwide, a quarter of which are children.

In Europe the coerced movement of humans has dramatically increased in recent years, with authorities identifying over 15,000 victims just between 2012 and 2014. But statistics can hardly convey the harsh reality of humans forcibly traded across the continent, the majority of whom are exploited for sexual purposes. Women make up the greatest majority of victims, while children constitute 7% (a number that is sharply on the rise). The majority of EU human trafficking victims originate from Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania, while most of the victims from non-EU countries come from Nigeria, China, Albania, Vietnam, and Morocco.

Past inaction, coupled with ineffective policies that have prioritized border security alone, have exacerbated this now rampant problem. As more migrants seek illegal entry into Europe, they fall prey to criminal networks of people smugglers. Thanks to a growing awareness of these inhumane practices, human rights advocates are now calling loudly for action. The EU policy framework to eradicate this shameful crime calls for cooperative action in concert with member states, EU agencies, third countries, civil society, and the private sector. Additionally, the European Council, for its part, has put forth a convention aimed specifically at combating trafficking within EU member states.

In addition to multilateral efforts, certain member states, i.e., Italy, France, and Portugal, stand out for their proactive attempts to tackle this pressing regional and global issue.


Italy is one of the main destination countries for trafficked men, women and children. Since 2015, the country has been coping with an overwhelming flow of migrants, a significant portion of whom are vulnerable to trafficking. The number of potentially trafficked victims in Italy has increased by 600% in recent years. A survey by the UN’s International Organization on Migration (IOM) revealed that the majority of migrants arriving to Italian shores are exploited by criminal groups. In 2016 nearly all migrant Nigerian women and children arriving to Italy were trafficked, making Italy the main corridor for smuggling girls from Nigeria into Europe.

Of the millions of humans trafficked within Europe between 2012-2014, 51% were women, 20% girls, 21% men and 8% were boys. More than half were forced into sex trafficking, while just over one-third were forced into labour. Copyright: Seita/

The severity of the situation has led Italy to approve the first “National Action Plan against Trafficking and Severe Exploitation.” Broken down to the “4 Ps” (prevention, protection, prosecution, partnership), the plan allocates resources to improve coordination between the central, regional, and local government administrations, with a number of local projects throughout the country aimed at protecting and assisting victims.

The most promising aspects of the national plan are the measures aimed at improving trafficking victim identification among migrants and asylum seekers. However, this a massive challenge, given that the majority of victims, especially children, are often reluctant to self-identify. It requires systematic training of immigration police officers and a great deal of cooperation among agencies. Such a delicate task requires nuanced interviewing techniques and speedy outreach to potential sex trafficking victims while they wait at migrant reception centres.


France is both a place of destination and a transit country for trafficked migrants and has an estimated 18,000 female victims being trafficked for sex within its borders. NGOs have reported an increase of Nigerian women and girls forced into sexual exploitation in France, particularly girls under 15, some as young as 11. Reports also show an alarming increase in cases of children (mostly from Roma ethnic communities of south-eastern Europe) trafficked to France for forced begging and petty crimes.

In response to these tragic practices, the French Government responded with a National Action Plan to provide funding for victims, including a monthly stipend, medical care, legal and psychological counselling, and shelter. The plan aims to dismantle criminal networks trading in human lives and improve the training for all concerned professionals who deal with trafficking. The program has been lauded for the progress it has made so far, however it has received criticism that it ought not to use law enforcement to condition the support for trafficking victims to cooperate in receiving help.


Portugal’s experience with trafficking is unique among its southern European neighbours. According to the Council of Europe’s GRETA (Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings), the majority of Portugal’s identified victims are male. The most common form of trafficking is labour exploitation, where men, the majority of whom are from Romania and Nigeria, are forcefully employed in Portugal’s agricultural sector.

The Portuguese Government is taking serious steps to tackle this inhumane trade by amending the criminal code to include mentions of forced begging and exploitation of human activities, as well as stating the irrelevance of a victim’s consent to the intended exploitation. Portugal also created a specialized Anti-Human Trafficking Unit within the Border Police and effectively trained its personnel to conduct victim identification. However, some critics argue that the government’s approach unduly criminalizes victims who were involved in unlawful activities.

Human trafficking can be crudely paraphrased as migration gone terribly wrong. As such, any attempt to tackle it solely from a criminal perspective is likely to fail. As a high reward-low risk activity, many fear it will continue as long as there is demand for sexual exploitation and cheap labour, along with an endless supply of victims escaping from economic or social instability. In order to fight this crime, there must be greater cohesion across agencies, more professionalization among security forces and social service providers, and improved sharing of best practices across EU countries.

To truly succeed in rooting out this malignant practice from the continent, European countries must address human trafficking both as a development issue, as well as the human rights crisis it is. All three of these countries, Italy, France, and Portugal, are taking first steps in the right direction. However, they must continue to push their own governments and as well as their neighbours to smother the flames of this ubiquitous trade and close down its channels of operation, so that migrants can indeed find Europe to be the safe harbour they were promised.

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Simon Meretab

Simon is a freelance writer focused on migration, human rights and development. He holds a MA in International and European Relations from Linkoping University, Sweden. He worked in international development in Italy and South Africa and human rights advocacy for NGOs based at the United Nations Offices in Geneva.

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