Laws are signals: Europe could learn from Sweden on human trafficking prevention

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The sex industry is very lucrative, but is closely linked to human trafficking.

To reduce the demand for human trafficking, legislation should shift the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services, rather than those who sell it, argues Linnéa Engstrom.

Linnéa Engstrom is a Swedish Green party MEP and a member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. 

The overlapping of trafficking in human beings with migration, the arrival of refugees and smuggling put people vulnerable to human trafficking in serious danger. It also jeopardizes progress we have already made.

Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation is a form of violence against women and it must be approached and prosecuted appropriately. As victims of crime, people already involved in the sex industry need better rights protection. The victims must be protected and afforded full support and retribution. A reduction of the demand for trafficking in human beings and sexual services can be achieved through legislation shifting the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services of trafficked persons, and away from those who sell it.

As a member of the Swedish Greens, I emphasize data confirming the deterrent effect that the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services has had in Sweden, my native country and constituency, as a member of the European Parliament. The Swedish model, criminalizing those who buy sexual services, has an obvious and profound normative effect. It has true potential to change social attitudes in order to reduce the demand for the services of victims of human trafficking. Those who claim otherwise often state that it complicates the lives of those working in the sex industry. This may well be the case in the short term, as some of the prostitution moves underground. But the gains in the long run are easy to detect.

There is significantly less prostitution in Sweden than in the neighboring countries. In fact, hardly any country in the world has fewer problems with human trafficking than Sweden, according to the Swedish police. Four years after the introduction of a sex-purchase law in Norway, based upon the Swedish model, the Norwegian government chose to evaluate its effects in 2014. The results are striking and positive, showing among other things that the demand for prostitutes has been significantly reduced.

Trafficking in human beings is of course a complex issue and there are many problems yet to be tackled. The sex industry is extremely lucrative, which is why there will always be powerful actors wanting to support it. Despite the prostitution ban, for instance, the number of convictions in Sweden has remained low. Only a handful of pimps are each year sentenced to prison. Most customers get away with fines, although their names are entered in the police registers. A recent report on trafficking in human beings in Europe signals under-reporting of the crime and indicates a poor record of identification of the victims of trafficking of all genders. The main problem seems to be the lack of political will.

But with the legislation in place in Sweden, our police officers have learnt to understand that prostitution is not a normal business. The attitude has spread to the population at large. There is no doubt that a ban on the purchase of sexual services brings about fundamental, albeit slow, change in societal attitudes.

A report to be voted in the European Parliament on Thursday at the Strasbourg plenary calls on the European Commission to further fully examine links between demand for sexual services and trafficking in human beings. I fully support this as a good start. But it is not enough. We have to move towards punishing the purchasers of sex in order to achieve a normative effect. Otherwise we can forget about tackling the crime of trafficking in human beings.

By Linnéa Engström May 10, 2016 

A regulated sex trade can have a positive impact on reducing the effects of human trafficking.

Legalizing and regulating prostitution can contribute to the fight against people trafficking, but more measures are needed, according to a new study. EurActiv Germany reports.

The estimated number of cases is high and one thing is clear: in the last year, the number of people made victims of people trafficking increased in the European Union. Forced labor and prostitution are the main driving forces of the trade. A European Commission study, using Eurostat data from 2012, shows that 96% of trafficked people are sexually exploited and the vast majority are female.

The idea of decriminalizing prostitution has long been mooted as a possible measure to combat the illegal sex trade. The legal status of prostitution across Europe varies and the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution on the issue in February 2014. Croatia remains one of the only EU member states where prostitution is completely illegal. In Germany and Netherlands it is legal and regulated.


NATO’s role in the Aegean will be to deal a blow to refugee traffickers, Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Nikos Xydakis, told EurActiv on Thursday (18 February). EurActiv Greece reports.

Whether legalizing and regulating prostitution could act as a model for countries wishing to tackle people trafficking has been the subject of a new study carried out by researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Duisburg-Essen. The study used Amsterdam and Dortmund as its two case studies. Dutch and German authorities allow prostitution to be operated as a business, but it is subjected to a high level of monitoring and regulation.

“In Dortmund, brothels must be registered at the trade office and usually the operator needs a permit,” said Birgit Apitzsch, a co-author of the study. The police also make regular checks to ensure that trafficking is not still happening.

In Amsterdam, brothel owners are responsible for ensuring that the women working on their premises do so voluntarily. Self-employed sex workers must register with the chamber of commerce. “Local authorities and the police in both cities can rely on a trusting relationship with prostitutes and they are always available if needed for counselling,” said another of the study’s co-authors, Markus Tünte. “This is important in order to identify victims of trafficking and to help them,” he added.

Experts believe that certain forms of prostitution, such as that found on the street or involving underage people, are particularly affected by traffickers. The study concluded that regulating the trade has contributed to a drop-off in the activities of people traffickers and recommended further measures to continue the fight.

Brothels should be federally regulated and counselling centers should be better funded, urged the study’s authors.


Half of all people fleeing conflict are women, but their plight is often ignored in our approach to refugee crises, writes Irene Zugasti.

Germany also wants to push through Justice Minister Heiko Maas’ bill against sexual exploitation, which would see clients of forced-prostitution punished with up to five years in prison.

The European Parliament is currently working on a resolution intended to combat the illegal sex trade as well. A few days ago, the institute’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) called for the fight against illegal trafficking to be prioritized, given its implications on the ongoing refugee crisis as well.

ENVI member Miroslav Mikolášik pointed out that although the vast majority of people affected by the trade are women and girls, men can also be victims of sexual exploitation.

By Nicole Sagener | Translated By Samuel Morgan

Mar 31, 2016 (updated: Mar 31, 2016)