Fresh evidence from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), is showing the complexity of many human-trafficking-related cases, in which defendants are also victims of the global scourge.
It seems, they have no alternative but to obey an order, and commit a crime, or hoped to limit their own exploitation or escape poverty by playing a role in the crime.
The study has also found that traffickers use women and girls as a shield to protect themselves from being punished for their crimes.
Taking one example from the report, a 2017 criminal case in Canada involving an 18-year-old woman defendant charged with the forced prostitution of two female minors, aged 14 and 16.
She had instructed one of them on how to dress, and what to do with clients, and taken away the cell phone of the other, to prevent her from escaping.
She was found guilty and sentenced to eight months in prison.
However, it was revealed during the case that she too was a victim of sexual exploitation. The court heard that she was under the control of a male trafficker, and had been exploited from the age of 16, and physically abused by pimps.
The case is included in a new publication, Female Victims Of Trafficking For Sexual Exploitation As Defendants.
UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, who coordinated the development of the study, Zoi Sakelliadou, says “ever since UNODC started collecting statistics on human trafficking 15 years ago, women and girls have consistently represented the majority of reported victims.
“We’ve also seen that the percentage of female perpetrators of trafficking who are at the same time victims of this crime, is steadily high too, especially if compared to female offenders in other crimes. The traffickers not only earned a profit by sexually exploiting the victims, but then made them commit crimes so they could escape liability and prosecution”.
The report shows that traffickers deliberately used the “victim-defendants” in low-level roles, that exposed them to law enforcement authorities – meaning they were more likely to get caught.
These roles included the recruitment of new victims, collecting proceeds, imposing punishments, or posting advertisements for victims’ sexual services.
In very few of the examined cases did the victims engage in acts of trafficking in an attempt to move up the hierarchy of the criminal organization or for financial gain.
It was not just the statistics that led UNODC to analyse this topic, explains Ms. Sakelliadou, but also calls from law enforcement and criminal justice officials, who stressed the complexity of investigating and adjudicating cases that involve female victims of trafficking as alleged perpetrators.
The study also highlights the clear links between human trafficking and violence against women, domestic violence, and the role of intimate partner violence.
“We found that in around a quarter of the cases examined, the women had been subjected to multiple forms of violence prior to and during the trafficking process, including from early childhood”, says Ms. Sakelliadou. “We hope this study will support the law enforcement and criminal justice officials and the NGOs who handle these complex cases and support the victims.”
Last November, more than 50 independent UN human rights experts said in a statement that the COVID-19 pandemic has played into the hands of slavers and traffickers and requires stronger government measures to prevent exploitation of vulnerable people.
There was a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, they said. Exploitation could mean forced labour, including the worst forms of child labour, or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited.
Governments and businesses should recognise how the loss of jobs, income or land could put vulnerable groups at greater risk, such as people already facing discrimination on grounds of sex, race, age, disability, religion, nationality and economic status, and people without basic services such as sanitation and education.
“If workers don’t receive adequate economic, social and other support from governments, without discrimination on grounds of migration and other status, they face serious risk of exploitation, including being subjected to slavery, servitude, forced or bonded labour, or trafficking in persons”, the statement said.
“In this regard, we are concerned that these practices have increased in the past months. In some cases, victims are further subjected to ill-treatment, torture, or even disappearance when they are prevented from informing as to their fate and whereabouts and put outside the protection of the law.”
Signatories to the statement included many Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups –independent experts who report to the UN Human Rights Council – as well as the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1991.
Governments must do more to protect victims
They said governments must increase their efforts to identify and protect victims of slavery and trafficking, ensuring their access to essential health services, including reproductive health services, psycho-social counselling, legal assistance, vocational training, income-generating support and remedies without discrimination.
Governments should also try to remove social and employment inequalities that can make some people more at risk of slavery and exploitation, while international solidary was needed to ensure child protection was adequately funded, the human rights experts said.
“We call upon member states and other entities to address the structural causes that contribute to slavery and exploitation and continue providing support to those offering comprehensive assistance to victims, including through contributions to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year”, they said.
The statement’s first signatory, Tomoya Obokata, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, plans to hold a webinar on Tuesday to discuss aid for racially discriminated groups subjected to slavery during the global pandemic.
The statement was issued ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, which marks the day in 1949 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first Convention to fight human trafficking.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.