Mary Cunneen is the former director of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organization working to eliminate slavery and related abuses, including trafficking people for sex. In this interview, she talks about why trafficking is a human rights issue, why we need to give protection to its victims, and why countries need to change their immigration policies to address the demand side of the market.
Can you give me a definition of trafficking?
Trafficking is when somebody is forced through deception, coercion, threats or actual violence into forced labor or exploitation. When you're talking about sexual exploitation, you're obviously talking about people who are trafficked into forced prostitution.
What is the difference between smuggling people and trafficking people?
It's very difficult sometimes to differentiate. Quite often it can be very unclear what the situation actually is. Especially when somebody crosses the border, they may not actually know what will happen to them at the end of the day. But smuggling is basically the facilitating of an illegal border crossing, often for the payment of money, but once the border has been illegally crossed, the person is free to do what they want. In trafficking, the relationship doesn't end there. There's the ultimate outcome of forced labor and exploitation, and that's the difference.
To the best of your knowledge, how many people are trafficked every year?
It's very hard to say because of the hidden nature of the crime. Of the cases that do come to public attention, that's probably very few of the total number of cases. We can say that hundreds of people are trafficked into the U.K. every year, but the accurate numbers don't exist.
Is that because it's underground?
It's a completely hidden type of crime. Most of the activities are illegal activities. Most of them probably don't come to the law enforcement's attention. Some [of those trafficked] will be seen as illegal migrants and then deported at the port when they're discovered and will never get anywhere near prosecutors or near support agencies. So it's a completely hidden crime. It's very difficult to know what's actually going on.
The United States has estimated 800,000 people a year are trafficked internationally. That's not only sexual exploitation, but all other forms of trafficking into labor exploitation as well. But that really is an estimate; it can't be said to be an accurate figure, because again, the difficulties of this hidden crime make it impossible to know actually how many are being trafficked.
Have you seen an increase in trafficking for sexual exploitation over the years, or is it just something that now the public is interested in?
Again, it's very difficult to say, because it's a hidden crime. More cases may come to the public attention, but that doesn't mean that there are more cases; it may just be that there's more awareness of it. So I think it's impossible to say whether it's growing or not, but it is possible to say it's a problem.
What does your organization do in respect to trafficking and sexual exploitation?
We've been trying to persuade European governments and the U.K. government in particular to put in place policies that enable people who have been trafficked into these countries to get basic human rights protection.
... Many people who are trafficked are simply seen as illegal migrants. The consequences of this are, when they are found, they are deported straight away and are never identified as victims of human rights violations and victims of crime. The traffickers themselves use that to frighten victims -- they know that they're here illegally. They're told if they go to the police that they are likely going to be prosecuted or deported, and in some countries be held in detention, and therefore they don't see the authorities as someone they can go to for help.
On a more structural basis, there is a demand both in the U.K. and other European countries for people to carry out various types of work -- domestic work, agricultural work -- and that demand cannot be met by the indigenous population. Without sufficient migrant workers able to come in through legal mechanisms, that demand will ultimately be met through illegal mechanisms, whether it's the smuggling of people or trafficking of people.
So there needs to be a more coherent immigration policy in Europe and I would think in other countries in the world that looks at the demand and supply factors, and enable them to match each other better than they currently are being met.
What is your organization's position [on how trafficking victims should be treated by the countries they find themselves in]?
[There are two reasons that victims of trafficking should be given help and support from the destination countries.] First, these people are the victims of serious human rights abuses, and they are simply not given the protection that they need. And we say they need a period to recover, which is called a reflection period, which is simply a time when they can have safe housing, support services and access to medical care, education, to training opportunities, to psychological counseling, to legal advice so that they can begin to recover form their ordeal and decide what decisions they want to make.
A lot of these people have been abused very badly. They may have been involved in some sort of relationship with their trafficker. They may have been trafficked for a long period of time. They may have terrible psychological scars, and it's very difficult for them to know what to do or who to trust. And they need time just to begin to recover. But the second aspect is, if they don't have that, then all too often we see them being deported as illegal migrants. They don't have the opportunity to cooperate with law enforcement, and then the trafficking ring can't be broken, because there simply isn't the information available to enable prosecutions to take place. And so it's a double-edged sword as to why we need to give protection to trafficked persons.
What's the resistance to a reflection period [from the government]?
I think issues with letting women stay for a period of reflection ... [are] related to migration issues, as it may be seen as a back door to getting some form of migration status. It may be used by illegal migrants, and indeed abused by traffickers as well, to get people into the country and to get around immigration policies. It has to be said that in the countries in which it exists -- it exists in Italy, to a lesser extent in the Netherlands, in Belgium, and one of the Scandinavian countries is introducing the system -- that has not been the case at all. There are sufficient checks within the system [assuring] that it cannot be abused and that anybody who is trying to do so would be very quickly found out. So I think the concerns of the government, while they can be understood, are not borne out by the experience of those who have done it.
Do you think it's because of an anti-immigration feeling in many of the Western countries that it's just not a priority?
I think that governments have a real concern that they will be seen as being soft on the immigration agenda in many of the Western countries. But I think they also need to face up to the migration policies around trafficking and enable safe migration to occur, and [offer] protection of migrants' rights as a way of countering trafficking. If they continue as they are with very restrictive migration policies, then inevitably, with the demand that there is for the various forms of forced labor, trafficking will occur; smuggling will continue to occur. Just trying to be restrictive is not an effective way of trying to counter these phenomena.
I've heard people say: "They're being trafficked by people in their own communities, in the countries they're coming from. Why is it our problem?"
I think it's our problem for a number of reasons. It's our problem because we have obligations under the international human rights treaties. We also have moral obligations to protect victims of serious crimes, and that is what these people are. It's also our concern because a lot is being done in countries of origin; a lot of efforts are being made from those countries themselves. ... But the reality is, there is a huge difference between countries of origin and countries of destination -- huge social and economic differences, huge differences of opportunity -- and inevitably people will see those differences and will want to take those opportunities up.
What do you think are the causes of this [phenomenon]? Many women from Eastern Europe coming into Western European countries, North America --
I think there are a large number of root causes. There is clearly the breakdown of the former Eastern bloc countries and the social systems there. There's the position of women within those communities, and the discrimination that has occurred and is continuing to occur in those communities, and the ability they see to get a better life elsewhere. There is serious poverty still. Many of the people who are trafficked have come from single-parent families, are single parents themselves, may have been in institutions, may have suffered some form of abuse. But that's by no means all, so there are a variety of different causes. But I would say lack of opportunity, poverty, discrimination.
I've read that it's [a] multibillion-dollar [industry]. Is that [similar to the] numbers that you have?
Again, as nobody knows how many people are trafficked, nobody knows how much money is made out of trafficking, but it seems to be that huge profits can be made. People are paid nothing or very little. Transport costs can be very low. The amounts of money that people can earn when they're in forced [labor, whether in] prostitution, whether as domestic workers, whether as construction workers, who have to pay their traffickers, can be significant amounts of money.
... Trafficking isn't only a high-profit business; it's also a low-risk business. In many countries there haven't been any laws against trafficking whatsoever. Most countries are only now bringing in laws against trafficking, but the numbers of prosecution are extremely low, and so traffickers to a large extent can act with impunity. ...
Until recently in the U.K. there was no trafficking law, either for sexual exploitation or other forms of labor exploitation. When cases did start coming to the police, first of all, it was very difficult for them to put resources into them or indeed to identify them as crimes because they didn't have this law that said it was a crime. Practically all cases were dealt [with] by the clubs and vice squad down in Soho, which dealt with the regulation of prostitution, and they were able to prosecute for living off of immoral earning, or maybe for rape, or maybe for kidnap, maybe for assault. So there were crimes that could be prosecuted, but they were much harder to see as trafficking because there was no specific crime of trafficking. And in many of the cases, if, for example, they were being prosecuted for immoral earnings, that's a much less serious crime than trafficking with far lower penalties, so it really doesn't reflect the nature of the crime whatsoever.
Some people say most of the women coming here know they're working as prostitutes. Why should we worry about these women who know exactly what they're getting into?
I think it's important to realize that working in prostitution in itself is not a human rights violation. It may be working under extremely unpleasant working conditions, but it is not a human rights violation. It only becomes a human rights violation, only becomes trafficking, when people are forced to work in prostitution when they have no choice, when they are coerced, when they are deceived, when they are threatened through violence, psychological threats or whatever. That is forced prostitution, that's a human rights violation, and these people we should worry about. ...
How can Western countries help to stop this?
I think there are two ways in which Western countries, countries of destination, can look at this issue. I think they can look into assisting countries of origin in trying to deal with the basic issues of inequality, discrimination, of gender inequality, of poverty; some countries have a lack of democratization. All these push factors are causing people to want to leave these countries, to come to Western countries for a better way of life.
But secondly, I don't think you can just say to Western countries, "Countries of origin are the problem." Western countries also have to look at what can be done in our own countries, and that means ways to enable safe migration, ways to respect the rights of migrant workers, ways to provide help to trafficking victims who do end up in these countries.
Do you think we're moving towards that? Are Western countries doing a good job of starting to address the issue?
I think there's increasing awareness in Western countries of what needs to be done, and there's increasing debate about what needs to be done. The difficulty is this balances with the concern of illegal migration and the concern to have policies that are not seen to enable illegal migration to occur.
... [Also], I think it's very difficult to be talking about countries of destination and countries of origin in very distinct terms, because certainly within Eastern Europe -- the Balkans, Turkey, places like that -- a lot of the countries can change very rapidly from being countries of origin to becoming countries of destination or countries of transit, or all three of those. It's a very fluid phenomenon. The demand and the supply changes very quickly, so a country can change from being origin to destination very rapidly.
What is your opinion about the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report?
I think that the Trafficking in Persons Report can be a very useful tool in that it can highlight and raise awareness of instances of trafficking, and there can actually be good research in it that actually does go through countries and explain what is occurring in those countries. But I think there are also major deficiencies with the report.
Firstly, most of the information is not particularly in depth, is not particularly analyzed, and therefore cannot show the whole picture. Secondly, we have concerns about where some of the countries are in the categorization, which tiers they have been put in.
Our third concern is that the report does not deal with trafficking in the United States, and there are serious problems with trafficking in the United States, and perhaps the report should also look at what the American government is doing and if their policies are being implemented, if they're looking at other countries.