New EU Anti-trafficking Directive leaves trafficked people behind 

The EU Council has adopted changes to the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive which fail to address root causes of trafficking and fail to protect and empower trafficked people. 

Lilana Keith, Senior Advocacy Officer at PICUM, said: “The revision of the Anti-trafficking Directive is a wasted opportunity to make a difference for trafficked people. The changes don’t address the barriers to safe reporting, remedy and compensation, they don’t improve access to residence permits. The focus was narrowly on doubling down on a criminalisation approach that’s ineffective and actually raises concerns for victims and those at risk.” 

One of the main changes is that the revised Directive obliges member states to criminalise the knowing use of services of trafficked people, when this was previously optional. This is despite the lack of evidence that this measure is effective in tackling trafficking or strengthening the rights of victims. Currently two-thirds of EU member states already have such a provision, and prosecutions and convictions are rare. On the contrary, further criminalisation will likely harm the rights of sex workers and those who are trafficked and exploited in the sector.  

Sex workers already face a multitude of harms when their clients are criminalised and when targeted by anti-trafficking actions. These risk being exacerbated by criminalising the knowing use of services of trafficked people, due to lack of understanding, fear among clients and discriminatory policing.  

Such measures will likely weaken efforts to enhance identification of trafficked people and their referral to support services, including by clients. Rather than focusing on identifying victims of trafficking, resources will be directed to identifying people who have “knowingly used” the services. Victims can be worse off too, being treated primarily as “witnesses” to an offence and having to testify against the users of their services, rather than victims of trafficking entitled to protection and support. 

The new Directive does introduce the requirement to let trafficked children report abuse in a safe and confidential way, but it fails to extend this crucial provision to adults. Fear of immigration enforcement is one of the major reasons preventing people experiencing abuse from contacting authorities and receiving the protection and services they are due. 

The final text also no longer requires member states to establish independent national Rapporteurs, which are important institutions to monitor human trafficking trends and policy responses.  

The only really positive improvement is that the revised Directive says it must be possible for member states not to punish trafficked people for administrative offences (in addition to criminal offences) they might have committed while trafficked. This should be implemented so that undocumented trafficked people do not face immigration enforcement or any sanction related to their undocumented residence or work. 

Suzanne Hoff, International Coordinator of La Strada International, said: “If there are indications of trafficking, the law already grants the person access to unconditional support, regardless of their status or engagement with authorities or legal proceedings. However, this hardly happens in practice, and also prevents access to remedies. The revision should have addressed this, and incorporated more binding provisions to strengthen rights for trafficked people. This includes the possibility to access a residence permit on personal grounds, the erasure of any criminal record and sanctions linked to their trafficking, and the prefinancing by States of compensation awarded”.