It is a lucrative global industry, generating an estimated EUR 8-12 billion and involving around 300-500 thousand people annually. It is equally lucrative in the Czech Republic. But it is also an illegal industry, one that most people never notice or even think about.
The industry is human trafficking, and while it appears to be hidden, evidence of it in the Czech Republic is everywhere if you take a closer look. The woman serving you a snack at a street stall in the centre of Prague may be a victim. The prostitutes standing on Wenceslas Square could be victims. Or perhaps the builders working on the new apartment block in your neighborhood have been trafficked.
What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking can be described in many ways. Stop the Traffik a global movement fighting human trafficking, provides a succinct definition: human trafficking is “to be deceived or taken against your will, bought, sold and transported into slavery. For sexual exploitation, forced begging, sacrificial worship, or removal of human organs, as child brides or into sweat shops, circuses, farm labour and domestic servitude.” Human trafficking is different from people smuggling, where people pay to be transported.
Traffickers include local or multinational gangs, drugs gangs and other criminal groups. Victims can be male or female, although according to the US State Department, 80% of victims are female. Children are trafficked, too, and the United Nations Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) estimates that worldwide around 2 million children work in the commercial sex trade. There is no “typical” profile of a victim, although he or she tends to be from the poorest and or most vulnerable sections of society. Human trafficking is truly a global problem, and no country is unaffected by the issue.
The methods of forcing people into human trafficking vary widely; one of the most well-known techniques is deception. A classic example is a fake newspaper or online advertisement for an au pair, posted in countries such as Ukraine or Romania. It is common for nationals in such countries to seek a better life by earning a living in the west. Criminal gangs are well aware of this. They exploit the victim’s eagerness to improve themselves – and their vulnerability – by posting the ads, which appear entirely legitimate. Women respond to the advert, only to find themselves tricked when they arrive in the new country. They have no resources to get back home and are forced into labor to pay the “transport costs” of delivering them to the destination.
Human trafficking in the Czech Republic – An Overview
Human trafficking is a significant problem in the Czech Republic, especially due to the opening up of borders post-1989. And after 2007, when the Czech Republic joined the Schengen Zone, the work of traffickers became even easier.
The Czech Republic has always been a source, transit, and destination country for trafficking,” says Dr Irena Ferčíková Konečná, national coordinator of La Strada Czech Republic, part of a Europe-wide network of La Strada NGOs, which focus on anti-trafficking. “Today, the trafficking of marginalized groups to the United Kingdom for forced labor purposes is on the increase,” she adds, explaining that “We are also witnessing an increase in trafficking to the Czech Republic, especially from new EU countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.” In terms of transit and destination countries, victims come from Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries, and now, increasingly, further afield, including African nations and Latin America.
The types of work that victims are forced into is not just prostitution or work on building sites, but other areas including agriculture and food processing. Recently, cases have emerged involving Vietnamese working in illegal marijuana processing plants in the Czech Republic. Scattered in secluded locations, these operations are almost invisible: access is via concealed bricked-up entrances. In addition to the isolation, “workers” at these “factories” are spending long periods of time underground, compounding their distress.
Like elsewhere, most trafficking victims in or passing through the Czech Republic come from the most vulnerable sections of society, although Dr Konečná notes a case where a Czech female university student became a trafficking victim. She also reports increased numbers of homeless people who are approached by gang leaders. “They stand outside places where homeless people gather such as shelters and crisis centres, and offer them work and accommodation.”
Tackling the problem – the actors involved
Tackling human trafficking requires the involvement of politicians, bodies, law enforcers, and non-governmental organizations and charities “on the ground”. In the public sector, the fight against trafficking is overseen by Ministry of Interior, which is involved in anti-trafficking through the police force, and among others, the Interdepartmental Group for Fighting Human trafficking (2008-2011) and the National Strategy for the Fight Against Human Trafficking (2008-2011).
In the voluntary sector, two key organizations are La Strada Czech Republic and Catholic charity Caritas, including its Magdala project, which helps women who are the victims of abuse or human trafficking. La Strada Czech Republic is the only NGO in the Czech Republic specializing in human trafficking. It has three main areas of work: prevention and education, including fieldwork in areas where people at risk of trafficking may be; direct assistance, including a hotline service, accommodation or legal representation; and advocacy and lobbying. Caritas, which is in the process of recruiting a new director, is involved in a range of social care activities including supporting trafficking victims. It works in partnership with La Strada and provides shelter accommodation for victims of domestic violence and homeless people. Trafficking victims can also seek refuge in the shelter accommodation.
Although progress is being made in the Czech Republic in the fight against human trafficking, many are critical of the role of public bodies and legislators, highlighted by the notorious Tree Workers Case, which began in 2009, and is described as the biggest exposed case of labor exploitation in Europe in the last 20 years.
At least 2,000 workers, from Central and Eastern Europe but mainly Vietnam, were forced to work for the state-owned forestry authority, Lesy ČR, under very harsh conditions. Essentially, the work was slave labor, and the victims were “employed“ by various shady employment agencies, which were part of a pyramid of contractors and sub-contractors; at the top was Lesy ČR.
The workers were issued with fraudulent contracts, were not paid, given little food, and housed in appalling accommodation. If they complained, they were threatened, and they were regularly moved around and worked in small groups to minimize the risk of being noticed. The tree workers also were threatened with violence, and practically nothing was done when they suffered serious work-related injuries, which occurred frequently.
It emerged that the Vietnamese workers were paying thousands of dollars to middlemen at home in order to find work in the Czech Republic. They believed they were going to find legitimate work and planned to support their families with the money earned abroad. Sadly, the opposite was true. The case would have remained a secret had it not been for a team of young lawyers who fought for the workers, after being approached in 2010 by one Vietnamese worker who managed to escape.
Government ministries, the police and other public bodies have claimed they can do nothing, but NGOs have been campaigning for compensation for the workers. But Marek Čaněk, migration online coordinator at the Multicultural Center Prague, argues much more could be done. “This case was a big failure from the point of investigation and prosecution by state authorities. It was not being taken serious by a number of different state authorities for a long time, which shows the low priority of labor violations in general including that of migrant workers.”
Low priorities are an issue raised by Charlie Lamento, a former US prosecutor who moved to Europe in 2007 to promote a community-based law enforcement (COMBAT) model to eliminate human trafficking lawyer who has been based in Prague since and deals with the legal aspects of human trafficking in the Czech Republic argues that when it comes to the issue of prostitution and sex workers, old-fashioned attitudes still prevail, and there is a reluctance for the police to take such issues seriously.
He also advocates the joined-up approach between actors should be much more vigorously applied, and cites the example of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. “Wilberforce took a holistic approach. He didn’t just abolish slavery through the law but he fought it through other ways,” says Lamento, adding “Likewise we have to fight trafficking through the involvement of all sections of the community.”
Whatever the solution, traffickers will always try to be one step ahead. “Traffickers are always very extremely creative. They need to be to find new ways of getting around the law and being above it. So that means of course that we have to be flexible too and find new ways of tackling the problem,” says Dr Konečná.