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Trafficking victims failed by Austrian justice

Published: 16 Apr 2014 12:16 GMT+02:00

How many men, women and children are trafficked into Austria each year? We don’t know, and neither does the Austrian government. In coordination with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the government has identified 242 victims of human trafficking in 2012, declining somewhat from a level of 251 in 2011. However, official statistics of trafficked victims for any country only represent a small part of a much greater problem.

“A big segment of human trafficking remains hidden and has never been detected by anybody” said Kristiina Kangaspunta, Chief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Trafficking in Persons Unit in an interview with The Local. “We do not know how large the human trafficking problem really is.”

At the same time, the number of convictions for human trafficking in Austria appears low. In 2009 a total of 32 trafficking offenders were convicted, dropping to 14 convictions in 2010 and to nine convictions in 2011 (the most recent year for which sentencing data is available). In 2012, the government reportedly prosecuted 45 human trafficking offenders.

Is the Austrian legal system up to the job?

“The number of prosecutions for trafficking in all countries is not only very low, but the sentences usually do not match the severity of the crime” says Helga Konrad, Anti-Trafficking Executive Director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP) and former OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. In Austria, a number of sentences of human trafficking offenders have attracted criticism.

In February 2013, a court in Styria convicted four trafficking offenders, one of whom received an 18-month prison sentence with a 13-month suspension for recruiting women from Bulgaria and forcing them into prostitution.

One particular case in March 2012 drew the anger of NGOs who condemned the leniency of the convictions for a group of traffickers who received partially suspended prison sentences ranging from 12 to 30 months for having forced 30 Bulgarian women and one minor into prostitution.

“Trafficking in women is played down and treated as a trivial offence,” stated Evelyn Probst, coordinator of the LEFÖ-IBF Intervention Centre for Trafficked Women in Vienna shortly after the sentence was passed. “I am worried that these kinds of sentences will not only encourage other traffickers, but demonstrate to victims that their testimonies are worthless.”

However, reduced numbers of human trafficking convictions are also a feature of countries across Europe. In the European Union (EU) as a whole, conviction rates for human trafficking have fallen by 13 per cent, from 1,534 in 2008 to 1,339 in 2010; while on the other hand, the recorded number of people trafficked has risen to 23,632 people, an increase of 18 per cent, within the same period.

More than two-thirds of the reported victims in the EU were women and 15 per cent were children (mostly girls), 62 per cent of whom were victims of sexual exploitation and 25 per cent of whom were coerced into forced labour.

The awareness of human trafficking in legislative terms in Europe has only really come to the forefront in the last 10 years. “In the past, only [a] few countries had laws directed against human trafficking and they mostly addressed the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation” said Kristiina Kangaspunta. “Now more countries have legislation on human trafficking which also address forced labour and other forms of trafficking.”

The issue was first placed on the political map in Austria in November 2004 with the addition of a section of human trafficking to the Criminal Code, thereby prohibiting all forms of human trafficking, and the establishment of the Task Force on Combatting Human Trafficking. This Task Force is responsible for putting together national Action Plans against human trafficking covering a two-year period, the latest of which was published in March 2012.

Photo: Imagens Evangélicas

The victims’ perspective

Another disturbing feature of human trafficking is how children are trafficked and exploited by organised crime gangs. Roma children and other children from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe are particularly vulnerable to forced begging in Austria. The Viennese crisis centre “Drehscheibe” identified two male victims and seven female victims of child trafficking in 2012. In 2011, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) reported that possible victims of child trafficking in Austria are sometimes treated as offenders or irregular migrants.

According to GRETA, there have also been reported cases of unaccompanied minors disappearing from accommodation centres and sometimes reappearing in another Austrian city. Even though the “Drehscheibe” centre in Vienna provides accommodation and support to child victims of trafficking, such facilities remain absent in the other regions of Austria.

According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the majority of victims detected by law enforcement entities between 2007 and 2010 had been trafficked from Romania and Bulgaria, including other countries in Eastern Europe and Nigeria. Victims are often tricked into leaving their home-country with false promises of jobs in the service sector, such as working in restaurants, shops, child-minding and other occupations. In an interview with The Local, a victim (who for her own security remains anonymous) described how she was tricked into coming to Austria.

“I had so many dreams of coming to Europe and I looked forward to having a job there, but they were quickly crushed when I arrived” explained M. “I felt confused and lost.” Once the victims have arrived in Austria, they are threatened and coerced into prostitution or forced labour with bogus claims that they are obliged to repay their excessively high alleged travel and visa expenses. In addition, their passports and documents are invariably taken from them, which only aggravates their illegal status.

Statements from victims are key in prosecuting the traffickers. In 2012, the Austrian government reported that 50 trafficking victims assisted the authorities in prosecuting their traffickers. However, most victims refused to cooperate with the authorities because they were too afraid to provide such statements as they were threatened and put under pressure by their traffickers.

Often, the balance of justice is not in favour of the victims. Victims who agree to testify against their traffickers are nevertheless rarely granted residence permits which can threaten their security. “I would really like to stay in Austria because I receive a lot of support here and can simply call the police if something happens” said M. “It is too dangerous for me to go back to my home country and I could even be killed.”

The Austrian government reported granting 111 residence permits to trafficking victims under the “red-white-red card” immigrant programme between July 2011 and October 2012. However, according to GRETA, some victims who reside illegally in Austria and are placed in police detention centres pending deportation, run the risk of being deported before they have been identified as victims of trafficking.

“Victims of human trafficking have sometimes been expelled from the country, before the authorities have properly looked into the case” said Joana Adesuwa-Reiterer, founder of EXIT, an NGO established to combat human trafficking from Africa. “This is also detrimental to the prosecution.”

Ensuring victims’ rights is a challenge across Europe. “Criminal justice systems in general need to take on a more flexible stance to ensure that the victims’ rights are protected and that this is made a priority” said Kristiina Kangaspunta. “Ideally, a full risk assessment needs to be carried out before victims of human trafficking return to their home-countries and victims should be provided with compensation, but this does not happen often.”

In support of victims, the Austrian LEFÖ-IBF NGO has claimed financial compensation for each of their trafficked victims in criminal court since 2010. Seven trafficked persons received compensation in 2012, the highest totalling €30,000. The victims often need psychological support as well as medical attention.

“Many of the women whom we assist are traumatised and need a lot of support in dealing with their horrible experiences” said Joana Adesuwa-Reiterer. “Especially in these circumstances, victims must not be expelled and the law enforcement procedure must take care of the psychological state of victims.”

Another issue is that NGOs in Austria do provide extensive assistance to trafficked women that have been forced to prostitution, but relatively little attention is paid to victims of forced labour and to male victims.

“So far, male trafficked victims do not receive enough real assistance and protection” observed Helga Konrad. “We have dealt a great deal with trafficking for sexual exploitation, but not trafficking for labour exploitation.” 

NGOs in Austria are seeking to put human trafficking into the centre of awareness and debate, but the official legal authorities have not yet been able to come to grips with the hidden extent of the problem.

Natascha Eichinger (news.austria@thelocal.com)

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