Prevention as the New Approach to Human Trafficking
Tuesday, August 30, 2005 1:45 PM

AWID interviews Barbara Limanowska about her research on human trafficking in South Eastern Europe (SEE), which has found that anti-trafficking strategies need to focus on prevention through empowerment if they are to be successful.

New research on human trafficking finds that "prevention activities are still very limited and those that exist are neither co-ordinated nor properly evaluated."

Barbara Limanowska, who is a consultant for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia Herzegovina, argues in her latest report that it is time for all involved in anti-trafficking measures to seriously examine the practices implemented and to focus on addressing the root causes of trafficking in an empowering way. Barbara's research findings are elucidated in a comprehensive report entitled: "Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe: Focus on Prevention". The report analyses current trends and highlights the challenges facing anti-trafficking strategies in SEE, concluding with the recommendation that success depends on the adoption of prevention as the new approach to trafficking.

AWID: The latest SEE Report highlights prevention as a core approach, including research on the demand side of trafficking. In your opinion, why do you think there has been a shortfall in demand-focused anti-trafficking strategies to date? How can we move forward on this important issue?

BL: The meaning of the research on the demand side of trafficking depends very much on the approach to trafficking as such. There is a group of professionals, researchers and activists, who tend to equal trafficking to prostitution. They understand demand for trafficking simply as the demand for prostitution and therefore focus their research and action exclusively on the clients of prostitutes. However, the definition of trafficking is broader and describes trafficking as recruitment, or transfer of persons (including men and children), by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation means here not only the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation but also forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs[1].

Therefore also research on demand for services/labour of trafficked persons should be seen in a broader context of labour exploitation and should mean all kind of research on demand for cheap unprotected labour, especially labour of migrant workers in the countries of destination. I do understand that some researchers might be more interested in researching the "exiting" issue of clients of prostitutes, than the complicated and politically sensitive problem of the profit gained by the destination countries in general and citizens of those countries, for example farmers or construction companies employing illegal migrants - victims of trafficking, in particular.

However, I do not understand the obsession of some governments with the subject of prostitution (especially Sweden and the US), combined with their reluctance to look at other forms of the trafficking related demand. It seems that moralistic debates are more convenient, and cheaper, for the governments than serious political discussion about the problem of international trafficking in the context of migration and migrant labour.

AWID: You differentiate between "repressive" and "empowering" anti-trafficking activities in the report. What are the main differences between them, and do you think that both strategies should run parallel, or should there be a greater focus on empowering strategies?

BL: In the report I am stating that the term "repressive strategies" relates to activities which focus on the suppression of negative (or perceived as negative) phenomena related to trafficking, such as illegal migration, labour migration, illegal and forced labour, prostitution, child labour or organized crime. Such strategies are designed to stop illegal or undesirable activities and are mainly enacted by law enforcement agencies that implement restrictive state polices and punish those who are found guilty of crimes related to trafficking. They are fully legitimate and necessary for the purpose of protecting state security but, in the same time such actions often run counter to the protection of victims of trafficking. Moreover, the actions against the state (illegal border crossing, smuggling, etc.) are often understood and presented as crimes so closely related to trafficking that these repressive strategies become referred to as anti-trafficking strategies, which are supposed to benefit the victims.

"Empowering strategies", on the other hand, focus on enabling people, especially potential victims of trafficking, to protect themselves from trafficking by addressing the root causes of the crime. Such strategies might include measures to overcome poverty, addressing discrimination and marginalization in the process of seeking employment and/or labour migration, as well as measures to allow people to make informed decisions and choices that might help them to overcome problems and prevent trafficking. Activities may include supporting and empowering high risk groups, providing educational activities for vulnerable young people to develop necessary life skills, adjusting education to the needs of the labour market, protecting the rights of migrant workers (including the distribution of information about safe/legal migration and supporting control over the process of migration by migrants), formalizing informal sectors in the countries of destination, addressing the issue of demand and providing information about labour laws in the countries of destination, and, protecting, supporting and empowering victims of trafficking, including social inclusion and strengthening the protective environment for child victims of trafficking.

For a number of years, it has been more common for State agencies and some international organizations to use repressive strategies, rarely incorporating empowering strategies into their actions. Therefore, the strategies used were, in the first place, of a legislative and prosecutorial nature, while long-term prevention and protection of the rights of the victims were seen as second, or distant, priorities. Empowering strategies have tended to be used by human rights organizations and values-based NGOs, as well as a limited number of State agencies. Organizations that are using empowerment strategies to prevent trafficking have been advocating for governments to adopt a human rights approach and to actively engage in meaningful dialogue with civil society actors. They have been stressing the need for inter-Ministerial and inter-agency cooperation and have been trying to ensure presence of a human rights perspective in the law enforcement approach, as well as the inclusion of preventive measures into the anti-trafficking strategies.

The experience of the NGOs showed that strategies focusing only on repressive measures are not victim-centered and often resulted in further victimization of trafficked persons. In order for anti-trafficking strategies to be effective and to protect the victims, there has to be a general understanding and acceptance of the empowerment approach to preventing trafficking that is firmly based on human rights principals.

AWID: Human trafficking has attracted a large number of donor agencies. What are some of the problems you have noted regarding the work of donor organizations in the region, and what should be their priority?

BL: There are several issues that have to be raised in relation to the role of the donor agencies. First of all, anti-trafficking activities are supported regardless their effectiveness and the costs of the programs. Trafficking is the only issue that I know about, that donors are willing to finance without expecting any concrete results. Anti trafficking programs are not properly monitored and evaluated, nobody is checking if the programs are really necessary, if they fit into a broader country or regional strategy and are not duplications of already existing projects.

After many years of anti-trafficking work in the SEE region, there is still no knowledge about the best approaches and the effectiveness of the used methods. In some situations it seems that trafficking is used as an excuse to shift attention and use funds of development or social change organizations to support anti-migration activities in the countries of origin. It happens quite often that the resources that should go to civil society are going to the law enforcement agencies to build their capacity (data based of migrants, technical capacity, etc.) under the banner of anti-trafficking programs.

Another problem is the lack of involvement of local NGOs in anti-trafficking work. Anti-trafficking programs are usually planned for a short time and do not have any capacity building component included. Funds are donated to the big international organizations, which subcontract local NGOs to implement concrete projects. Such policy very often leads to a negative selection of local NGOs - there are less NGOs focused on protection of the rights of the victims involved in anti-trafficking work now that a couple of years ago. Those who still work are less interested in human rights principles and women's rights, more in good cooperation with international and governmental agencies. NGOs, due to the attitude of the international organizations, see anti-trafficking work more as an income generation activity than an implementation of the human rights based mission.

AWID: Stronger political commitment from SEE governments hasn't necessarily translated into more effective anti-trafficking strategies. What are the main challenges and how can they be overcome?

BL: While the institutional response to trafficking in SEE is well developed, the work of the institutions involved is not very effective and not well coordinated. The main problem is the lack of clarity of the roles of existing structures and the unclear division of responsibilities of institutions taking part in anti-trafficking work. Another serious problem is lack of flexibility of established structures that are not able to react to the changes in trafficking trends and the needs of the changing anti-trafficking response. Lack of information about current trends in trafficking among the anti-trafficking institutions, lack of a proper identification system adjusted to the new trends in trafficking, and lack of a referral system for local victims of trafficking are the biggest problems of the existing system.

At the same time it seems that the responsible institutions are not fully aware of those problems. They seem not to be concerned about the lack of reliable information about current trafficking trends and the lack of knowledge about the changing scope of trafficking in the region. The structures are static and viewed as "once and for good" established institutions rather than flexible instruments that should be monitored, evaluated and adjusted as the situation in trafficking changes. There is no self-regulatory mechanism included in the anti-trafficking system that could help in the process of adjustment and re-structuring, when necessary. For example, while almost all institutions engaged in anti-trafficking work acknowledge that the system of assistance to trafficked persons does not meet their needs and that many victims refuse assistance because of that, there are no plans to change this situation. The victims' perspective is not included in the anti-trafficking response. Regardless of the low effectiveness of this method, the prosecutor's perspective, with the focus on the role of the victims as witnesses and offering them deals depending on their usefulness for prosecution, is predominant in the assistance programs.

There is a need to change the approach to combating trafficking in the SEE region, to recognize the new situation and develop a comprehensive human rights-based system for counter-trafficking activities (including prevention, protection and prosecution) relying on government-owned, flexible structures, acknowledge the changing modalities of trafficking and the fact that that current assessments are based on limited information and that there is need to improve information gathering, research and dissemination systems, and, acknowledge the need to set up standards and procedures for anti-trafficking work, including the monitoring and evaluation of implemented programs and accountability of the institutions involved.

AWID: An important undercurrent emerging from your research is the strong link between poverty, gender equality, development and trafficking. How do you think we can facilitate better cooperation between institutions so as to properly address the structural causes of human trafficking?

BL: In general, trafficking is still perceived and treated as an isolated social and criminal phenomenon that can be addressed separately from other problems. Although we know about the root causes of trafficking - poverty, unemployment, discrimination, violence in the family, and demand in the countries of destination - and understand that socio-economic factors are strongly linked to vulnerability to trafficking, this knowledge has not yet been translated into policies and strategies.

The issue of trafficking remains largely ignored in the Poverty Reduction Strategies developed in the region. Plans of Action on gender equality, child rights, social support or HIV/AIDS rarely mention trafficking and do not integrate actions against trafficking into their programs. In addition, international organizations tasked to deal with economic development and poverty reduction, such as the World Bank and UNDP, while addressing employment, discrimination and the prevention of violence, do not perceive vulnerability to trafficking as a special issue and have not included anti-trafficking prevention into their development programs in any systematic way.

"Mainstreaming" of trafficking into the development and gender agenda has not yet begun. Although there has already been some discussion about the social and economic situation of high risk groups and the need to address the root causes of trafficking, including the consequences of economic transition, privatization, structural adjustment programs and the planned changes in social welfare systems, there seems to be a lack of understanding and interest on the part of the development agencies to include the issue of trafficking into their programs. While a gender impact assessment is a mandatory component of all World Bank programs, it does not touch on trafficking and has not brought about any adjustments to the poverty reductions strategies or World Bank programs in the region.

A theoretical framework for addressing root causes of trafficking developed by human rights organizations does exist. There are also some prevention programs in the region focused on addressing the root causes of trafficking, such as empowerment, re-schooling, employment and job skills development programs for vulnerable groups in countries of origin. There is need for a broader debate on trafficking within the context of poverty reduction strategies, sustainable development, policies on prevention of different forms of discrimination, social policy models and, last but not least, migration policies. Structural reforms must take into account the trend to relegate women from the public sphere, including the economy, and the high levels of unemployment among young people. They should be accompanied by social policy measures to support vulnerable groups.

There is also a need to develop new types of income generating activities for high-risk groups that could form alternatives to migration. Prevention of trafficking is not predominant enough in the plans of action against trafficking and is not coordinated with other action plans that affect the same groups - child protection, gender, HIV/AIDS prevention, etc. Not enough attention is paid either to the relationship between various related social issues, such as education and child rights, gender discrimination and inequality in the labour market.

There is generally a lack of close co-operation and co-ordination between different institutions and different governmental action plans, to the detriment of trafficking prevention work. There is also no connection made between trafficking, labour markets and forced labour. The enforcement of minimum labour standards in the countries of destination would reduce the economic incentive to employ irregular migrants and to exploit trafficked persons, while a reduction of unemployment among the high risk groups in the countries of origin would reduce irregular migration and, thus, trafficking. Labour market-oriented anti-trafficking strategies do not target trafficking directly but remove the economic incentive and could be very effective as a long-term prevention strategy. It must be stressed that without a stronger emphasis on prevention and the involvement in anti-trafficking work of institutions that are able to address the root causes of trafficking, a successful attack on trafficking is not possible.


*Download a copy of the full report from:

*Barbara Limanowska works as a consultant on the issue of trafficking in human beings for various international agencies. In the framework of the SEE RIGHTs project, which was a joint initiative of OHCHR, UNICEF and OSCE-ODIHR she has written three reports about trafficking in human beings in the Balkan region: Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe. Current situation and responses to trafficking in human beings in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova and Romania (UNICEF, UNOHCHR, OSCE/ODIHR, 2002), Trafficking in Human beings in South Eastern Europe. 2003 Update on situation and responses to trafficking in human (UNICEF, UNOHCHR, OSCE/ODIHR, 2003) and Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe, 2004 ? Focus on Prevention (UNICEF, UNOHCHR, OSCE/ODIHR, 2005). Currently she works as a consultant on anti-trafficking for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia Herzegovina.

*Research for this report was carried out in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Bulgaria, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia), Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and the UN Administered Province of Kosovo between January 2004 and March 2004. See: The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, p.2.

Published in: Jones, Rochelle, "Prevention as the New Approach to Human Trafficking," AWID, Resource Net Friday File Issue 240, 19 August 2005.