Parliament approves tougher rules to combat trafficking in human beings

Traffickers in human beings are to face tougher penalties for their crime and victims will be entitled to better protection and assistance, under a new EU law approved by the European Parliament. The new rules will apply to trafficking in the sex industry or labour exploitation in, for example, construction work, farming or domestic service.

Human beings are trafficked for many reasons. Sexual exploitation, forced labour, begging, removal of organs, illegal adoption and forced marriages are some examples covered by the new rules.

The directive takes a broader view of what "exploitation" means than does the EU framework decision of 2002 (which it is to replace), thus widening the protection to more victims.

After negotiators of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission reached on 24 November a political consensus, the text agreed by Parliament and Council lays down minimum rules for defining criminal offences and sanctions for traffickers and introduces common rules to step up crime prevention and protection for victims. Once the directive is adopted, Member States will have two years to transpose it into their national laws.

Stiffer penalties for traffickers and proceeds to be confiscated

The new directive sets maximum EU-wide penalties of at least five years' imprisonment (i.e. Member States may not impose lower ceilings) or, in specific aggravating circumstances, ten years' imprisonment. These aggravating circumstances include cases where children are exploited, criminal organisations are involved, the victim's life is endangered or serious violence is used. Instigating, aiding, abetting or simply attempting to commit such an offence will also be punishable.

Where legal persons (organisations) are involved, sanctions should include criminal or non-criminal fines and could also include, for example, exclusion from entitlement to public benefits or permanent closure of establishments.

Member States should also ensure that the instruments and proceeds of these crimes are seized and confiscated. They are also “encouraged” to use them to support help and protection for victims, including compensation.

Broader protection for victims

Victims should receive accommodation, material assistance and where necessary medical treatment, including psychological assistance. Legal counselling and legal representation should be free of charge, at least when the victim lacks sufficient financial resources. Victims of trafficking should also have access to witness protection programmes and to compensation schemes.

Assistance and support should be provided before, during and for an appropriate time after criminal proceedings, irrespective of a victim's willingness to act as a witness. A requirement not to prosecute or impose penalties on victims is explicitly stated in the text.

To discourage demand, Member States should also “consider taking measures to establish as a criminal offence the use of services” of a victim, with the knowledge that he/she has been trafficked.

Several hundred thousand people are trafficked into or within the EU each year. Many victims are exploited for prostitution (43%, overwhelmingly women and girls), or for menial labour (32%).

The directive was approved with 643 votes in favour, 10 against and 14 abstentions. It will not apply to Denmark or the UK, but the latter may opt in later.