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Current low levels of prosecutions and convictions

Despite the important role played by criminal justice systems in preventing and combatting trafficking in persons, the global community has had little success in substantially reducing such offending. By way of illustration:

  • Only a small fraction of the percentage of offenders are being brought to justice. The UNODC 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons shows that from 2012 to 2014, only 6,800 traffickers were convicted worldwide, and only four out of ten countries reported having ten or more convictions annually, with nearly 15% having no convictions at all. The US State Department (2018) Trafficking in Persons Report records that during 2017, only 17,880 offenders were prosecuted worldwide and, of these, only 7,045 were convicted (down from 9,072 the previous year). Although no organization has published an estimate of the number of traffickers operating at any time, it is reasonable to assume that the majority are neither apprehended nor prosecuted.
  • Several organizations have gathered data on trafficking in persons and related phenomena, such as forced labour (see, for example, the multiple systems estimation study carried out for UNODC and the Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative, an initiative of IOM). From the analysis of such data, it appears that only a small percentage of victims are identified. For instance, it is estimated that from 21 million to 45 million people are in situations of forced labour. Against this background, 63,251 victims of trafficking were identified in 103 countries between 2012 and 2015. While it must be noted that these figures are not directly comparable as not all victims of forced labour have been trafficked, this significant discrepancy nevertheless highlights gaps in identification.

Similarly, the US State Department (2018) Trafficking in Persons Report found that only 100,409 victims (approximately 0.5% of the lower range estimate of 21 million people in forced labour) were identified by the anti-trafficking community during 2017, not all of whom were liberated or successfully reintegrated into their communities. Many have been or remain at risk of being re-trafficked. Others continue to suffer physical, mental and relational trauma, economic hardship and community shame and discrimination from their ordeal.

  • Furthermore, as noted by the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT) (2016, p. 44-45), prosecutions are disproportionately targeted at low level criminals, most of whom are readily replaced by criminal syndicates. Senior members of these syndicates remain in the shadows and operate with impunity, and their criminal operations continue unimpeded by the arrest of members from their junior ranks.

Reflecting these circumstances, and despite efforts by States to prosecute traffickers, it is not surprising that the crime of trafficking in persons is increasing. In the context of ongoing failures to significantly curb trafficking in persons, Harkins (2017) questions some facets of current criminal justice approaches and the evidence they are based on. He notes that many States do not collect sufficient data to justify the effectiveness of criminal justice responses, stating that "it is striking that so little money has been allocated to testing the fundamental assumption that successful prosecution of offenders creates an effective deterrent against trafficking" (p. 4).

During the 72nd Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, 37 Member and Observer States endorsed a paper entitled A Call to Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking . It set a deadline of 2030 to do so. Although a laudable objective, it will inevitably fail if progress to-date continues along its current trajectory. Nevertheless, the Member States issued a Political declaration on the implementation of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. Amongst other matters the declaration included, inter alia, commitments to:

  • Take decisive concerted action to end trafficking;
  • Address the social, economic, cultural, political and other factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking; and
  • Intensify their efforts to prevent and address the demand that fosters trafficking.
Next: Challenges to an effective criminal justice response
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