Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

From The Media To The Borders: The Challenges of Combating Labour Trafficking in Europe

by Akash Radia

January of 2014 marked the first National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the United States, as decreed by President Barak Obama. The gesture signified, at least within a US national consciousness, two key things:

  1. That human trafficking, or ‘modern day slavery’, as is coined by many non-government organisations, is a very real issue in the country, and requires a joint effort from government, NGOs and civil society to tackle [1];
  2. There is a need to bring it forward in the public consciousness.

The latter of the two is pivotal at this point in time.  Human trafficking elicits a very particular connotation for much of the world, not restricted to the US. That is, the image that arises in the West of forced prostitution and brothels filled with trafficked women. Human trafficking however encompasses more. The importance of the issue being brought to the forefront of the global community is to allow the general public to gain a more accurate understanding of all it actually entails.

Blame The Media

In March of 2012, the video Kony 2012 spread rapidly across the Internet. It appeared on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and had journalists and academics clamoring to debate. The film, produced by the organisation Invisible Children, highlighted the exploitation of child soldiers in Uganda by leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. The video was named the most viral video of 2012 by TIME magazine [2]. Number two on the list was Gangnam Style. The issue of human trafficking has barely ever been in such illustrious company.

Human Trafficking, as defined by the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (Palermo Protocol) is:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” [3].

This definition should highlight the first misconceptions that are prevalent in the public regard on human trafficking: trafficking is not constrained to transient movement across borders, and it has no bearing on the ‘choice’ of the victim [4]. It primarily concerns exploitation. However, a significant hurdle faced by government and non-government action to prevent trafficking is the convoluted nature of labour trafficking. Taking into account that the mediatisation of child and sex trafficking (as mentioned above) can cloud public perception of the issue as a whole, the effort to encourage awareness of trafficking, specifically forced labour, is in dire straights. At a time of immense hyper-connectivity, the role international media, and in turn social media plays in the public perception of human trafficking is paramount.

Whilst child and sexual exploitation accounts for almost 80% of all trafficking cases worldwide* [5] ignoring labour trafficking could have catastrophic consequences. For Europe, it is particularly poignant when you consider the nature of its borders.

The Convoluted Nature of Labour Trafficking in Europe

Last week, police across Europe arrested 103 people in 10 countries for crimes relating to labour trafficking [6]. Key raids occurred in a myriad of Central and Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and the Slovak Republic. Over the past half-decade, the impervious transport of persons from newly integrated states has only increased, and as such, Central and Eastern states have become prevalent countries of origin of those trafficked [7].

Europe is a global anomaly with regards to trafficking. It stands at a crucial crux, intersecting freedom of movement on one hand, and strict state border control on the other. For example, the Schengen Agreement made travel across the continent more accessible than ever for countries from within the EU. Clearly, this has an impact on illicit forms of travel. The common travel area has made the difficulties formally faced by traffickers dissipate, as visa processes become minimised and less scrutinised [8]. However, for those nationals from countries that are not part of the Schengen Agreement, corruption in border control and of law enforcement has been a significant catalyst for the rise in trafficking rates. Even when visa regulations are given absolute focus, with specific purpose of subsidising trafficking rates, countries have found a way around it. Although corruption is less rife with border agents as compared to police [9], it does still exist, specifically when in coalition with networks stemming from non-EU Central and Eastern Europe.

The CNN report cited above deployed 1,200 police officers to capture 103 criminals. The International Labour Organisation reports that 880,000 people are currently in forced labour across Europe** [10]. There are a sizable amount of traffickers still at-large, one can assume, considering this number. Sting operations, whilst effective to combat organised crime, are considerably more difficult within labour trafficking due to the high demand for cheap labour, thus creating a rather unorganised network [11].

Labour trafficking may account for a fifth of trafficking cases globally [12], however, a liberal freedom of movement, a lack of organised networks, and ingratiated corruption can skew the exact number of those trafficked for labour, and exacerbates the lack of detection.

Combating the Issue

Central and Eastern Europe states constitute a large majority of those trafficked and that figure is only rising post-economic crisis [13]. Networks that transport the person, and corruption at the borders are rife [14]. Still, the economic and cultural benefits of European integration out-weigh the desire for governments to decrease freedom of movement for the purpose of stemming trafficking rates. Analysis of the US-Mexico border will show that increasing border control does not lessen rates any further [15]. In fact, human trafficking seems no more than the same exploitation that arose from colonial economies. Slavery has been around for centuries, and will most likely continue to be. Thus, within combating human trafficking detection is an often unaddressed issue that is decisive, specifically for those ingratiated in the system to begin with. This refers to law enforcement in conjunction with (and knowledgable of) strict labour laws.

Labor Laws and Law Enforcement

“Aijun G. wanted to take a sick day. “You can take a break when you have cancer!” his boss screamed. Then, he claims, his boss added: “What would happen to me anyway, even if I beat you to death?” He then attacked his employee with a chair, threatened him with the broken neck of a bottle and shouted, “If you go to the police, I’ll stab you!” [16].

Instances like this, from an Asian restaurant in Speyer, Germany, are commonplace [17]. If it were to be investigated for suspected labour trafficking, it is the law enforcement agent who will take the decision on the criminal nature of the business, as well as classify those that had been supposedly trafficked as such. In this, law enforcement training in both human trafficking and a comprehensive understanding of labour laws, can be key in arresting such circumstances people like Aijun G. might find themselves in.

They cannot do it alone however. The hope is that states view trafficking victims as not simply part of any typical migration. Training can ameliorate persistent corruption via fostering communication between governmental and non-governmental sectors, where those that have the knowledge, and those that have the power to detect instances of labour trafficking are working together at all steps of the process.

In this, human trafficking is presented within an accurate image for all it encompasses.


* & ** Due to inconsistences and difficulties in collection of data these figures may vary









[8] Rusev, Atanas (2013) ‘Human Trafficking: Border Security and Related Corruption in the EU’, Migration and the Security Paper Series, DCAF Brussels.

[9] Ibidem





[14] Ibidem

[15] Maggy Lee. Human Trafficking. Cullompton, Devon, U.K.: Willan, 2007.


[17] Ibidem


One comment on “From The Media To The Borders: The Challenges of Combating Labour Trafficking in Europe

  1. Pingback: The Role of Media in Conflict |

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