London
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Global prosecution and conviction levels for human trafficking are "abysmal", a senior European security official said on Thursday, urging states to invest more in combatting a crime that affects millions of people.

Governments are not devoting enough resources to tackling the crime, Valiant Richey said in his first interview since taking charge of anti-trafficking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a security watchdog.

"No country is winning on human trafficking right now," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"What we're seeing is a fairly abysmal level of prosecution and convictions across the OSCE."

Europe justice

A Statue of Lady Justice is pictured outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on 29th April, 2019. PICTURE: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Almost 25 million people around the world could be trapped in forced labour, the International Labor Organization estimates, from construction and agricultural workers to sex trafficking victims.

That compares to between 4,000 and 5,000 human trafficking convictions a year across the OSCE, which has 57 member states in North America, Europe and Asia with a combined population of more than 1 billion people, Richey said.

The global movement to stop trafficking and modern-day slavery was boosted by United Nations agreements that came into force in 2003 known as the Palermo Protocols. 

Since then, most countries have passed an anti-human trafficking law, trained some authorities and provide some services, Richey said.

"It's a great example of international law helping to spur a response, the problem is that it's not working, we haven't solved the problem." 

Richey, a former US prosecutor, was this month appointed Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the OSCE, running a team of 15 people.

He said he would focus next year on drawing attention to levels of investment in prosecuting human trafficking, which he said were vastly outstripped by money devoted to efforts to stop drug trafficking.

Governments around the world carried out 11,096 trafficking prosecutions in 2018 and won 7,481 convictions, according to estimates compiled in the Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department.

Prosecutions have risen since 2012, but hit a peak of 19,127 in 2015, the data shows. Governments identified 85,613 trafficking victims in 2018, up more than 80 percent from 2012, the report said.

Some civil society groups working to combat human trafficking have raised concerns about heavy-handed law enforcement causing harm, particularly for migrants who are deported, or sex workers imprisoned.

In recent years, Britain has sent home or aided the return of dozens of trafficking victims to hotspots including Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam despite the risk they could be targeted again.

Richey said his team had worked on guidelines to help authorities identify migrant victims of trafficking and get them assistance regardless of whether they cooperated with police investigations. 

He said he did not think the answer was to stop prosecuting people.

"We can't take that position," he said. "The level of impunity is really grossly outweighing the implementation of these laws right now."