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Questions and Answers - Trends, challenges and revision of the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op maandag 19 december 2022.

What is trafficking in human beings?

Trafficking in human beings is a violation of fundamental rights and a complex crime. It consists of:

  • 1. 
    an intentional act, such as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons;
  • 2. 
    committed by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion. This can also include abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or a position of European Referral Mechanism;
  • 3. 
    for the purpose of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced begging, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, exploitation of criminal activities, or removal of organs.

Victims of trafficking are often forced or misled into various forms of exploitation. They can be exploited in their own country or in another country.

What is the difference between trafficking in human beings and migrant smuggling?

The main difference is that when it comes to migrant smuggling, migrants pay for the services of a smuggler to irregularly cross an international border. When it comes to trafficking in human beings, people are trafficked for exploitation purposes, and activities are not necessarily cross-border. The two phenomena are often linked as smuggled persons can become victims of traffickers for labour, sexual or other exploitation purposes.

Why is the Commission proposing to revise EU rules on preventing and combatting trafficking in human beings?

The Commission proposes a revision of the Anti-trafficking Directive to ensure that the EU and Member States are better equipped to address current challenges and trends. The Anti-trafficking Directive establishes minimum EU rules to prevent and fight against trafficking in human beings and protect the victims. Several challenges and trends have developed since its adoption in 2011, affecting the vulnerability of people to trafficking and the way traffickers operate. Technological developments, in particular the expansion of the internet and social media, have created new opportunities for traffickers, which allows them to reach a broader audience for advertisement as well as recruitment and exploitation of victims. There has been a significant increase in trafficking for purposes other than sexual and labour exploitation. The revision also seeks to strengthen the early identification and referral of victims, helping the criminal justice system respond to trafficking offences committed by companies and improving the data collection system.

What are the key elements of the proposal to revise the Anti-trafficking Directive?

The revision of the Anti-trafficking Directive will update and further harmonise the EU legal framework, with the specific aim of facilitating cross-border cooperation in cross-border cases. The revision includes:

  • Adding forced marriage and illegal adoption among the forms of exploitation explicitly covered by the Anti-trafficking Directive. Member States will be required to include these purposes of trafficking in their national legislation. This will help law enforcement and judicial authorities to detect cases effectively and combat trafficking in human beings for these two forms of exploitation.
  • Referring explicitly to trafficking offences committed or facilitated by means of information and communication technologies. The internet, particularly social media and online platforms, is being increasingly used by traffickers. Traffickers use online means to recruit, arrange transport, gather and move profits, control and exploit victims directly from their place and being shielded by a screen. This modification will better equip national authorities to investigate and prosecute offences committed in whole or in part online, re-affirming the EU focus on the digital aspects of trafficking in human beings.
  • Introducing mandatory sanctions against companies responsible for trafficking offences. This can mean excluding them from public benefits, aid or subsidies, or closing establishments used to commit the offence. In the most serious cases, the companies may be disqualified temporarily or permanently from commercial activities, be placed under judicial supervision or be subject to judicial winding-up. These changes can help to dissuade traffickers by strengthening the sanctions.
  • Requiring the formal establishment of national referral mechanisms. This aims to streamline and harmonise structures and procedures across the EU for early identification, protection and support to victims of trafficking. This measure will also create the foundation for the development of a European Referral Mechanism.
  • Criminalising the use of services obtained from victims of trafficking, when the user knows that the person is a victim. This criminal justice measure is part of the EU comprehensive approach to reduce demand, and it is accompanied by non-legislative measures, such as a training, education and awareness raising.
  • Formalising an annual EU-wide data collection on trafficking in human beings conducted and published by Eurostat. This aims to gather more reliable and comparable data in order to map trends and challenges so the EU and Member States can better target trafficking.

What is the EU doing to combat trafficking in human beings?

The EU takes a comprehensive approach to combatting trafficking in human beings, from prevention through protection of victims to prosecution and conviction of traffickers. The EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings (2021-2025) identifies four areas of action:

  • Reduce the demand that fosters trafficking in human beings
  • Breaking the criminal business model of traffickers to halt victims' exploitation
  • Protecting, supporting and empowering victims, especially women and children
  • Addressing the international dimension

Many of the legal, policy and operational initiatives announced in the Strategy are at an advanced stage or have already been implemented, as described in the Commission's fourth Report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings. The EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator coordinates the implementation of the Anti-trafficking Directive and of the Strategy in cooperation with the EU Network of National Rapporteurs and Equivalent Mechanisms and the EU Civil Society Platform against trafficking in human beings.

Raising awareness and improving victims' rights and protection, including in cross-border cases, are among the non-legislative measures to combat trafficking. The Commission funds anti-trafficking actions inside and outside the EU by Member States, civil society organisations and international organisations. It supports operations that tackle human trafficking coordinated by the Member States and the EU Agencies, including within the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Crime Threats (EMPACT).

What is the situation in relation to human trafficking in the EU?

Around 7000 victims of trafficking in human beings are recorded in the EU every year. The actual number of victims, however, is likely to be significantly higher than reported data suggests, as the statistics only include victims known to the authorities.

Trafficking in human beings remains a crime with a significant gender dimension. In 2019-2020, women and girls represented 63% of all registered victims in the EU. The share of male victims (33%)[1] increased as compared to 2017-2018 (23%). Almost one in four victims of trafficking in human beings was a child (23%). The majority of child victims were female (75%). Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the most prevalent (51%) and it mainly affects female victims (87%, of which 73% women and 27% girls). Trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation is the second most prevalent form of trafficking in human beings in the EU (28%). It increased significantly compared to the previous reporting period (15%). Males represent the majority of the victims trafficked for labour exploitation (66%), while 34% are women and girls. Other forms of trafficking in human beings, other than sexual and labour exploitation, accounted for 11% of all cases[2].

53% of the victims were EU citizens and 43% had a non-EU citizenship[3]. Looking at the citizenship of trafficking victims by numbers, the majority were from Romania, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Poland. If one considers the number of victims proportionate to the population size, rather than the absolute number of victims, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary are the most represented EU citizenships. 37% of all registered victims were citizens of the country in which they were registered. From non-EU countries, as regards citizenship, trafficking victims in the EU were from Nigeria, China, Moldova, Pakistan and Morocco.

There were 15 214 individuals suspected of human trafficking crimes (both EU and non-EU citizens), which is an increase of 3 426 from the last reporting period (2017-2018). The rates of prosecutions (6 539) and convictions (3 019) still remain very low within the EU.

What impact did Russia's aggression against Ukraine have on trafficking in human beings?

Russia's aggression against Ukraine led to a high number of people fleeing the war into the EU, of which 90% were women and children. The risks of trafficking in human beings were considered from the beginning. Criminal organisations between Ukraine and the EU were already active before the war. Ukraine was among the top ten non-EU countries of origin in the EU in 2019-2020, with Ukrainian victims mainly being trafficked for sexual and labour exploitation. The war has further increased opportunities for traffickers to take advantage of the vulnerable situation of people fleeing the aggression, mainly women and children, for their financial gain.

The EU reacted quickly by activating the Temporary Protection Directive, which has decreased the vulnerability of people fleeing the war. The Common Anti-Trafficking Plan, was developed under the lead of the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator in close cooperation with the National Rapporteurs and Coordinators, the EU Agencies and civil society organisations. It sets out concrete actions at EU level and recommendations for the Member States to prevent trafficking in human beings, increase law enforcement and judicial cooperation and protect potential victims. While the temporary protection and other actions helped to reduce vulnerabilities, some victims may remain undetected. It is important to remain vigilant and to identify possible future vulnerabilities.

How does the EU address the international dimension of trafficking in human beings?

The EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings 2021-2025 considers the international dimension of trafficking in human beings a top priority, as almost half of the victims identified in the EU are non-EU citizens. The EU pays particular attention also to the risks of human trafficking linked to migrant smuggling, war and displacement.

Addressing the international dimension includes cooperating with international organisations, third countries of origin and of transit. This is done through continuous policy engagement with the European External Action Service, as well as through the provision of appropriate funding for anti-trafficking programmes.

The other priorities of the Strategy remain equally relevant in the context of EU external policies.

How do we hold companies accountable?

The Commission adopted several measures on the responsibility of companies to reduce demand for and detect trafficking in human beings in their activities. The Commission proposed a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence which sets out ways to encourage businesses operating in the single market to respect human rights. This can be in their own operations and through their value chains, by identifying and helping to prevent their adverse human rights impact, including human trafficking. On 14 September 2022, the Commission presented a proposal for a Regulation prohibiting products made with forced labour on the Union market. These proposals - once adopted - will strengthen EU efforts to hold companies more accountable for human trafficking offences.

What is the cost of trafficking in human beings?

In the EU, annual revenues from sexual exploitation are estimated at around EUR 14 billion. The Commission's 2020 study on the economic, social and human costs of trafficking in human beings showed that the total cost of trafficking in human beings amounted to a total of EUR 2.7 billion per year in the EU.

The costs associated with trafficking in human beings are mainly linked to

  • lost economic output, victims do not participate in the legal economy while being trafficked;
  • the lost quality of life for the victims, who may be subjected to physical, sexual and mental ealth, requiring assistance and support.

The Commission supports Member States with substantial funding to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings and to assist victims. During 2014-2020, the Commission allocated over 35 million euro for anti-trafficking projects.

In 2022, the Commission provided EUR 13 million for anti-trafficking actions through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF). These funds support concrete transnational projects which aim to break the criminal business model of human traffickers and improve early identification, assistance and integration of third country nationals who are victims in the Member States.

For More Information

Press Release


Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims.

Report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings (Fourth Report)

Webpage on the fight against Trafficking in Human Beings

[1] For the remaining 4% of recorded victims of trafficking in human beings, the sex was ‘unknown'.

[2] For the remaining 10% of recorded victims of trafficking in human beings, the reported form of exploitation was ‘unknown'.

[3] For the remaining 4% of recorded victims of trafficking in human beings, the citizenship was ‘unknown'.

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