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Scotland's Move to Protect Victims of Modern Slave Trade Is Model for the World

16/05/2013 13:50 BST | Updated 16/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Last month, Scotland's police made a radical policy shift, announcing they would no longer seek to prosecute people brought to the UK to work against their will. This shift is crucial: a "victim focused" approach is needed, if we want to achieve better results in the fight against human trafficking, which is nothing more than a modern-day version of slavery.

Scotland's move towards "non-punishment" of victims is a major milestone in the ongoing effort to combat human trafficking, a grave violation of human rights and a growing social injustice. It is a move that I applaud. As Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world's largest regional security organisation, I see this as a model that needs to be widely followed.

People who are being trafficked to work without a salary in inhuman conditions in agriculture or construction or domestic work, or to be sexually exploited, or to commit crimes such as pickpocketing or drug trafficking are victims. They are compelled to commit crimes such as the use of false documents or the violation of immigration laws. Trafficked people - already the victims of cruel injustice on the part of criminals - are being twice punished for crimes they have not committed voluntarily.

This new approach to protecting the victims is key to guaranteeing the human rights of trafficked people, who have committed crimes only because they have been compelled to do so. It is also an essential step to reducing victims' reluctance to appear in court and helping law enforcement bodies to increase prosecutions.

To understand the injustice of the present situation, you need only look at typical case: a young Vietnamese girl is trafficked to the UK and imprisoned in a guarded cannabis factory where she is made to work long hours without receiving a salary. During a raid, the girl is arrested and prosecuted for drug cultivation, ultimately receiving a 20 month sentence.

First, a court convicts a trafficked girl of a crime she was forced to commit. Second, in treating the victim as a criminal facing deportation upon release, the court eliminated almost any possibility that she will testify against those who trafficked her.

Statistics show that misunderstanding the victim's situation has had a paradoxical effect, jailing people for relatively minor crimes while allowing human traffickers to go free. Last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that there are 20.9 million people in situations of trafficking and forced labour globally, with around 880,000 in the EU. Separate data compiled by the US Department of State showed that globally there were 7,909 prosecutions for trafficking in 2011, and 3,969 convictions, with 42,291 victims identified. This shows that there are almost no legal consequences for traffickers in the vast majority of cases, and no access to justice for the millions ensnared.

The principle of non-punishment is spelled out in the national legislation of a number of countries and in the Council of Europe's Anti-Trafficking Convention. Now, it is essential that law enforcement bodies and the judiciary uphold this key principle.

Recently, I have led the way by issuing a series of policy and legislative recommendations drafted by a group of leading trafficking experts to help ensure that the principle of non-punishment is applied to trafficking victims. Among our 29 recommendations are several key points:

--The obligation not to punish victims of trafficking, grounded in international law, must be effectively implemented by governments in their criminal justice systems and practices.

--The non-punishment principle includes not only the prohibition to apply criminal sanctions but also the prohibition to detain and prosecute victims, and to apply administrative sanctions. This shield needs to be used to avoid trafficked people being unjustly detained or deported and to ensure that they do not end up with a criminal record, or negative consequences such as restrictions to residency or labour rights.

--Child victims of trafficking are particularly vulnerable. They must be rapidly identified as trafficked children and their best interests considered paramount at all times. Child victims of trafficking shall be provided with appropriate assistance and protection.

-- States should consider adopting an open-ended list of offences typically related to trafficking in human beings.

These recommendations need to be followed, and it is also crucial that judges and law enforcement officials are able to distinguish between a common criminal and a trafficking victim. As I travel around the OSCE region, I make sure to meet judges and law makers to raise their awareness and promote a victim-centred approach to trafficking action that respects the dignity and human rights of the trafficked.

If we do not act to change both legislation and attitudes, it will be impossible to ensure the rights of victims to receive compensation, and to significantly increase the number of convictions in trafficking cases. It is time to act to bring justice to these victims of modern slavery.

Maria Grazia Giammarinaro is the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a judge at the Criminal Court of Rome.