Human trafficking rapidly becoming the new, unseen dark side of Europe
by Timothy J.A. Passmore
Apr 19, 2013 | 376 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A single market, such as that of the European Union, has many benefits. Permeable borders that allow the free flow of goods, services and individuals have allowed EU member countries to boost exports, reduce the cost of imports and pick from a broadened stock of skilled and unskilled workers.

There are, of course, many drawbacks to such a system. Immigrants from poorer member nations to wealthier ones are often accused of taking low-paying jobs away from domestic citizens. And, Europe was recently hit by a scandal involving beef contaminated with horsemeat, originating in Romania but being distributed throughout the continent. But by far, the worst aspect of the European single market is human trafficking, whose scale has increased as the European Union has grown larger and more integrated.

Since it existed as the European Economic Community in 1957, Europe has increasingly sought to reduce barriers to open trade. The most significant step was the Schengen Agreement in 1995. This deal effectively removed border controls for EU citizens to better increase the free flow of people, and introduced a common visa policy for almost all EU member states. The result is an effectively borderless area that allows much easier trade within the EU, as well as the ability to travel and work in other countries.

With this kind of integration taking place, it comes as little surprise that human trafficking has been on the rise in Europe. Economic downturns and rising unemployment have led to more involvement in illicit trades, such as drugs, arms and human trafficking. Additionally, individuals seeking employment — most of whom are women — are lured by the promise of a job in other countries, only to find they are then forced into the sex trade or bonded labor.

As a resource much more readily available than drugs or guns, and with reduced regulations at European borders, the phenomenon of human trafficking has predictably become a huge problem. A recent report by the EU found that 23,600 people were trafficked in Europe during a three-year period, including an 18 percent increase from 2008 to 2010.

Of those trafficked, 80 percent were female and 62 percent were trafficked for sexual exploitation. Some 61 percent of the victims were from other EU member states. Yet, the report likely falls way short, as is so often the case, in finding accurate numbers on such a secretive and often inconspicuous industry.

Most of those identified within the study came from Romania and Bulgaria, both of which were controversially adopted into the EU in 2007. Recognizing that neither has achieved a satisfactory level of control over crime, including trafficking, both countries have restricted membership in the Schengen area. Despite that, large numbers of trafficked persons originate there, while they also serve as common destinations for those trafficked from outside Europe.

In 2011, the European Commission reported more than 1,000 individuals being trafficked out of Romania (again, probably nowhere near the real number). The top 10 places to which those people were taken were all EU member states including Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

European officials claim to be working hard to combat human trafficking, defending the Schengen agreement and claiming it provides more, not less, data collection opportunities to identify such behavior. Yet in truth, the majority of EU members are grossly deficient in their steps to combat the trade. To date, only six of the 27 EU member states (the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Sweden) have transposed the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive into their domestic legislation, with the deadline to do so expiring earlier this month.

Human trafficking is not a problem that will go away on its own, and as the world increasingly globalizes, the ease with which people can be transported across borders will only rise. The illicit sex trafficking “industry” is thought to be worth $32 billion a year, more than the combined profits of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, and is likely to overtake the drugs and arms trades in the next decade.

Europe may have a lot on its mind at the moment, what with its financial woes, and introducing trade and border regulations may not be a part of its recovery plan. Yet, the problem of human trafficking is too big to ignore, and the same European countries that were considered pioneers in creating the single market and currency union should now pioneer a heightened global attack on this horrific industry.