Cashing in on Human Despair
Human trafficking is not an antiquated remnant of a long-lost era, nor is it restricted to far-away countries. In fact, this crime which entails various forms and degrees of human exploitation, is still very much prevalent across the globe today, and you might unknowingly cross paths with victims of this inhumane practice on a daily basis.
The Czech Republic moves up the “supply chain”
One of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world along with arms and drugs, human trafficking (forced prostitution and sexual exploitation, forced labour and begging, domestic servitude, child marriages, organ farming, etc.) remains one of the greatest and least talked about scourges in our society.
The Czech Republic, which is involved in every step of the European human trafficking “supply chain,” is a tragically illustrative case. Due to its geographic location it is a key transit country for persons trafficked within the EU, mostly on an East-to-West route. Up to the early 2000s, the Czech Republic was also an important country of origin, with thousands of Czech women tricked or forced into prostitution and trafficked abroad to countries including Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.
“Within the past 10 to 15 years, things have changed”, explained Markéta Hronková, president of La Strada Czech Republic, a local NGO which operates secret shelters and a round-the-clock hotline for victims of human trafficking. “The country became more of a destination country,” with victims trafficked from Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, or Russia, and even more remote places such as Mongolia and the Philippines.
This shift had a lot to do with rising living standards, as well as record-low unemployment and skyrocketing labour shortages in key economic sectors (construction, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.). Consequently, the nature and “clientele” of human traffickers evolved: while Czech women being sent abroad for the purpose of sexual exploitation are quite rare today, human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation is on the rise. Children, however, are still estimated to account for half of all human trafficking cases.
“The huge influx of migrant workers to the Czech Republic attracted the sharks,” explains Petr Karban from the Prague branch of the International Office for Migration (IOM), pointing to the arrival of dubious middlemen and shady employment agencies using deceptive practices to lure people here.
Cashing in on human despair
While the Czech Republic was moving up the European “supply chain,” traffickers themselves, often Czech citizens who know how to navigate the legal and social hurdles, adapted their strategy to remain one step ahead.
“The classic scenario would be a fake au pair advertisement to lure young people, often women, abroad,” Karban said. The widespread belief that the entire scheme has gone digital is however erroneous, and may only reinforce the sense of “unreality” and “elusiveness” for the general public: “Many traffickers are still using face-to-face meetings to make contact with vulnerable people in search of a better life,” an approach that can take one of many different forms: random meetings at a bar, targeted contacts in front of homeless or Salvation Army shelters, etc.
“Human trafficking is based on the exploitation of human despair, and targets people who have what we call an ‘added vulnerability.’ But the phenomenon crosscuts all sections of society and is now based more on individual vulnerabilities than general socio-economic ones,” Hronková stressed. “Traffickers try to make potential victims feel secure and trusting. That is why the first contact is often made in real life, in environments people consider safe, or through supposedly trustworthy people, like a second-degree relative.”
As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between cases of clear coercion and those where the victim unknowingly falls into the net of traffickers through his or her own free will. Not only does this make it harder to identify victims of human trafficking, it also makes the legal prosecution of offenders more complex.
Whether it’s an au pair advertisement that proves to be something else entirely, an underage Roma girl sent to the border regions for the purpose of sexual exploitation, or a foreign worker trying to earn a living on Czech construction sites – dreams of a better future quickly fade away. Debt-ridden and alone in a foreign country with no social or legal support, victims soon find themselves trapped in a vicious circle from which there appears to be no escape.
“What’s worse, people can be trafficked for several purposes at the same time,” explained Hronková, citing cases where victims were not only trafficked for sexual or commercial exploitation, but also forced into sham marriages with non-EU nationals or used in social benefits and banking fraud schemes.
Addressing the root causes of human trafficking
In accordance with EU standards, the Czech Republic adopted an ambitious national strategy, spearheaded by the Interior Ministry’s Crime Prevention Department, in cooperation with a network of local activists and rights organisations. And yet, the situation is not improving.
“We’re losing the fight,”, warned Charles Lamento, a former US prosecutor who moved to Prague over ten years ago to promote a comprehensive and holistic approach to the fight against human trafficking at the European level. According to him, “the lack of knowledge and persistent misconceptions among the public, contradicting legislations, high legal costs and risks, as well as lenient and passive social attitudes on sexual matters” share part of the blame for the lack of progress.
In 2018, only 13 trafficking investigations were initiated by Czech police (down from 22 two years earlier), resulting in the conviction of 16 defendants for sex trafficking. Offenders are more often than not prosecuted on the more lenient grounds of “pimping” (48 convictions in 2018) and labour exploitation is allowed to flourish, unchecked, under the radar (only eight convictions since 2010). Meanwhile, the real extent of the problem amounts to a guessing game due to the lack of reliable and aggregated data. Whatever figures one might stumble upon, “this is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” warns Hronková.
Raising awareness among the public, who can either be potential victims or unknowing witnesses, is key toward encouraging people to come forward, either by seeking legal advice, contacting local NGOs (La Strada, Caritas, and others) or taking part in awareness campaigns. But this might be easier said than done.
“There is still a strong taboo regarding prostitution and sex trafficking in the Czech Republic. People don’t like to talk about it,” notes Veronika Čáslavová, a student at Masaryk University in Brno who closely monitored the issue. Although not a taboo per se, labour exploitation doesn’t rank among the population’s most pressing concerns either. “Most people don’t really care about the specifics,” argued Karban. “Their main concern is not whether or not someone is being exploited, but if that person is coming to ‘steal their job’.”
In cooperation with private companies, the IOM promotes ethical recruitment practices, but it faces the influential lobby of some industries who have a lot to gain from loose employment rules and cheap, unsupervised labour. “Strict immigration policies, which push workers to accept illegal and shady job offers, are also to blame,” warned Hronková. “As long as we’ll be looking at the labour market as a way to get the cheapest workforce possible, human trafficking will not go away.”
High-profile human trafficking cases may serve as a timely reminder that the fight is far from over, and that modern slavery can take truly horrific proportions. But this isn’t only happening in corrupt, out-of-touch, rich circles. By many accounts, human trafficking is an everyday phenomenon, even “mundane,” cynics might say. But if cynics have their way, the battle might already be lost.