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The role of the Public Prosecutor's Office in the fight against human trafficking

As part of EU Anti-Trafficking Day, Defence for Children - ECPAT Netherlands and Free Press Unlimited publish a series of three perspectives on the fight against human trafficking: the point of view of investigative journalists, the justice system and victim shelters. In the first interview, Lost in Europe shed light on the perspective of investigative journalism. For this second interview, we spoke to Warner ten Kate, the Dutch National Public Prosecutor for trafficking in human beings and people smuggling.

In our conversation with Warner ten Kate, we discuss the difference between human trafficking and people smuggling, the disaster of the 39 Vietnamese migrants whose bodies were found in an Essex refrigerated van, and the criminal investigation and prosecution of those involved in the, as he expresses, reprehensible, underexposed crimes.

In London, four suspects involved in the "Essex truck disaster" are currently being prosecuted. They are charged with people smuggling, but not with trafficking in human beings, which seemed undeniable. What does the law mean when it refers to  human trafficking and how does it differ from people smuggling?

“When you think of human trafficking you might think of buying and selling or trading people, but the central element is exploitation. According to the Dutch Supreme Court, the aspect of exploitation lies mainly in the nature and duration of the work, the economic advantage of the trafficker and the disadvantage to the victim, as compared to Dutch standards. Exploitation is benefiting at the cost of another, without the victim having a free choice.

Trafficking in human beings is a crime against personal freedom and against human dignity. People smuggling is a crime against the State. A people smuggler is a sort of illegal travel agency, often on a "no cure, no pay" basis. Vietnamese people who, for example, would like to leave Vietnam to eventually reach England, will do anything they can to cooperate in the smuggling. The smuggler doesn't usually care about what the Vietnamese eventually get up to in Europe.

When people are smuggled into Europe, and arrive without legal residence, they easily become victims of human trafficking. Perhaps their family or their village have saved up money to use for the smuggling of the most promising people from the community. But you often see that criminal organizations advance the sum covering the cost of travel. The goal is for the smuggled migrants to earn money in the destination country and send it back to Vietnam. And so they soon end up in prostitution, laundries, nail salons or hemp farms where they are exploited. If they resist, the exploiter threatens, for example, to inform the police and have them deported back to Vietnam.

And coming back to the Essex case, it certainly involved people smuggling. But we do not know what kind of situation the victims would have ended up in, in England. Probably in situations where they would be exploited, but yeah, that was not yet the case.”

Watch the video!

Are there different requirements for minors than for adults?

“For minors, there is no requirement for coercive measures to have been used, to meet the threshold of trafficking in human beings, unlike for adults. Whether or not they have agreed to the exploitation doesn't matter; children have a right to protection. Therefore, those who claim to be minors and who are suspected of being, or may become, victims of human trafficking, are placed in a special secure shelter. In most cases they don't wish to apply for asylum here, but wait until they are picked up for the next stage of their journey. The secure shelter is then actually a cheap hotel. They do not think of this method of abusing the asylum procedure themselves, they are advised to do that. The people advising them, they are the ones we are interested in.

Two Vietnamese boys aged 18 and 17 were also among the victims in Essex. Police discovered them as they tried to cross the Channel. They had been placed in a secure shelter in Limburg, but after a few months they left by taxi to Belgium. I think we should seriously consider whether our system of secure reception facilities is facilitating people smuggling. In the Koolvis Case, which took place in 2006, we guarded Nigerian girls 24 hours a day, which meant that we threw a spanner in the works of the human traffickers. They saw their business model disrupted. Secure reception sounds humane, but walking in and out freely is part of the smuggling process, and you have to question that. Doesn't that mean we're sabotaging ourselves? ”

How does the Public Prosecutor's Office engage in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking and smuggling?

“People smuggling is part of the migration issue. As a result of all kinds of push and pull factors, the migration to Europe is immense. The vast majority of the world's population lives in such dire conditions that they would like to do something different. Smugglers are acting in response to this. They make a lot of money off of the misery of others, although in court cases, they sometimes present themselves as benefactors. People are packed into a trailer or crammed behind bulkheads and no one pays attention to the conditions they are sitting in. It's just about making money. That is why we must forcefully combat human trafficking and smuggling.

We are increasingly focused and committed to this in the Netherlands, also in the EU context. For example, in 2016 the penalty for human smuggling was increased, and legislation is being harmonized across EU member states, so that smugglers cannot make good use of gaps in legislation. We have all kinds of methods of investigation at our disposal, and we share the information that results from them, as far as possible under privacy legislation, with the relevant national authorities, but also with international authorities such as Europol. Children, and other people in a vulnerable position, are given priority. What makes investigation and prosecution more difficult is that both smuggled migrants and victims of human trafficking do everything they can to meet the expectations of their families and villages. Victims will therefore not quickly come forward. That makes it very complicated."

How do you see the role of investigative journalism?

“I applaud investigative journalism. It keeps us awake and focused, sometimes draws our attention to abuses that we have not yet seen. That can sometimes be a reason for us to get started.”

We previously interviewed two investigative journalists who posed the following question to you, "What do you consider indicators of success in the fight against human trafficking?"

An important factor for the Public Prosecutor's Office, is whether you are successful in court. Our added value to society is to rescue people in a vulnerable position from a criminal environment. The knife cuts both ways, as this also makes society safer. I think we are on the right track in the fight against human trafficking and people smuggling, but the criminal justice system is the final step, and it is a fairly expensive endeavour. Preventing people from becoming victims is much more effective.”

Do you have a question for COA [the central refugee reception agency], our next interview candidate?

“It's more of an invitation: I would like to continue and intensify our cooperation with COA to achieve better results. It is often the sum of its parts that makes you successful.”

Written by Mieke Breedijk and Myrthe Nauta

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