A message to the NGOs, civil society and academia delivered during the International Expert Round Table on “RESILIENCE versus VULNERABILITY- how to break the Cycle of Human Trafficking and Exploitation in the Digital Age” taking place in the European Union’s Representation in Vienna, 27 September 2019

from CEIPA Executive Director Peter von Bethlenfalvy,

The Centre for European and International Policy Action (CEIPA) wishes to express its gratitude to the Regional Implementation Initiative on Preventing and Combating all Forms of Human Trafficking, in particular to Dr Helga Konrad, former Federal Minister in Austria, for this timely and unique initiative, bringing together so many national and international experts, NGOs, academia, government representatives from all over Europe.  CEIPA feels honoured to be associated with this unique event dealing with pivotal political issues shaping the future of the European Union.


The role of NGOs and the civil society in Europe


Hopefully, lead NGOs in Europe realise that their role is pivotal when actively and publicly requesting governments to come up with feasible, transparent and clear solutions to the migration, trafficking and smuggling of people.


Further delays and lip service through superficial solutions may lead to the further polarisation of our societies. The evident incapacity of our political leaderships to come up with sensible solutions towards irregular migration, smuggling and trafficking as well as regular labour and humanitarian migration, will contribute further to boosting populist and nationalistic political movements in Europe, well understood to be to the detriment of our freedoms and democracy.


Potentially, uncontrolled irregular migration and human trafficking are much more destabilising, divisive and explosive issues than the man-made climate disorders, CO2 emission and fast progressing global warming. The problem Europe and its political culture has with these issues, is that it needs to accept controlled labour migration to maintain the high welfare standards and economic growth, while it does not fancy the admission of foreigners to its territory. The latter in fact being perceived by large parts of Europe as security threat.


One should take into account that the issues of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, global warming and climate change have been taken in a relatively short time to the highest political decision-making level by NGOs and civil societies.


Governments, the private sector, the press and the media were unable, so far incapable, of achieving what NGOs and civil society activists did in a shortest possible period. NGOs and the civil societies have a duty to mobilise our political leadership and public opinion, towards the proper handling of migration, illegal migration, declining population growth, recruitment of foreign qualified manpower, illegal migration, trafficking and smuggling in persons.


For years, these unsolved issues have destabilised our societies whilst making the resurrection of populist and nationalist political movements a bitter reality. We have witnessed how the populist and nationalistic movements are cunningly hijacking the digital revolution via online means, disseminating hatred and evoking irrational fears in order to cement their influence and acquisition of political leadership.


The question remains, to what extent is the civil society in Europe mature and able to influence the public debate on how to maintain the flow of impartial and objective online information on migration and reducing the dissemination of hatred and nationalistic contents? The NGOs and civil society dealing with sensitive issues such as trafficking in human beings and migration are certainly able to advise governments and EU institutions if conducive conditions are available.


The engagement and activities of NGOs and civil society in influencing the re-shaping of Europe’s political landscape is of vital importance and necessity. Human trafficking and irregular migration are taking on a new form and intensity through the ongoing digital revolution.


Information gathering has become impressively fast and simple. The online environment is providing perpetrators, smugglers and traffickers with unprecedented access to a wide range of relevant information in the shortest possible time, whilst hiding their identity as well as the online means and networks that they are using. NGOs and civil society in Europe have to adapt to the fast-moving volatile criminal scene using tools of digital means and using the technology in the best possible way to protect humanity, democracy and justice.



European Commission and the EU Agencies dealing with migration, trafficking and security


The new EU Commission president designate Ursula von der Leyen should be obliged to listen to those who protect victims of trafficking and refugees, as an essential part of her agenda adhering to fundamental rights and protecting “the way of life in Europe”. It will be essential for the upcoming EU Commission to engage into a new sustainable dialogue with NGOs and civil society, dealing with cross national issues such as migration, organised crime and global warming. The new upcoming EU Commission has all it needs to create an atmosphere of trust and constructive and inclusive dialogue with NGOs and civil society. The continual dialogue remains an important contribution to the strengthening of the social, political and economic cohesion on our continent.


The EU Commission during the past years has been addressing challenges posed by harmful and illegal content online, proposing regulations on terrorist content online, child sexual abuse imagery and copyright infringements, whilst protecting individual rights and liberties. However, regulatory initiatives alone cannot address the sheer scale of illegal, criminal and harmful online content adversely affecting the protection of victims of trafficking and the prevention of terrorism.


This is why a number of self-regulatory and voluntary initiatives have been successfully addressing terrorist and trafficker propaganda, hate speech dissemination or disinformation and fake news. On the terrorist propaganda, the EU Commission established the EU Internet Forum in 2015, gathering the technology industry, EU member states, Europol, academia and civil society in order to reduce accessibility to terrorist content on the internet and empower civil society to increase the volume of effective alternative narrative online.


As a consequence of this action, companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have been making full use of their technical and innovative capacities to develop tools which quickly identify terrorist content and re-uploads of removed terrorist content, with the aim of assessing it for fast track action and prosecution.


The online dimension of illegal migration and smuggling has been addressed by the EU Commission and the tech industries, but the process is still in its rudimentary form. Subsequently, the EU Commission may want to fill this gap and provide equal means and engagement to fight and prevent the trafficking in human beings online.


The positive news is that the upcoming EU Commission is apparently willing to set new objectives for tackling migration, smuggling and the trafficking of human beings. The less encouraging news is that at this moment no one knows how and by what means this is going to be done. The portfolio for migration will be coordinated by a highly experienced European politician in his function as elect vice president of the European Commission, while at the same time the day to day work on these issues will be dispersed to a number of EU commissioners and directorates general dealing with home affairs, foreign and security matters, justice, development, labour and social matters, humanitarian affairs, gender issues, etc. For the moment, there is neither a directorate general in the EU Commission named migration and asylum, extending its competence and mandate over illegal migration, combatting trafficking and smuggling of people, nor is there a single EU agency called under that name.


Common sense would, however, suggest having a dedicated Commissioner heading the portfolio supported by a directorate general for migration, asylum, trafficking and the smuggling of human beings, as well as having the full mandate by the EU member states to coordinate the work of all European security agencies. The elect Commissioner and Vice President in charge of “protecting the European way of life” (meaning migration and related issues) will have to coordinate his decision making and initiatives with at least one executive Vice President of the European Commission, the High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission as well as with a number of other Commissioners as mentioned above, while not being able to rely on the direct support of a single directorate general.


Migration is itself a complex cross frontier and global issue, requiring an overarching and unified approach, well embedded into the structure of the European Commission.  Experts, NGOs and legislators in Europe are asking the question: why has the upcoming EU Commission omitted to unify all the capacity and knowledge into a single EU Commissioner’s portfolio, which would have the full competence and mandate to deal with the above mentioned cross-frontier multi-lateral issues? Good examples of unified structural approaches towards migration, trafficking and smuggling already do exist in a number of states in Europe.


On top, the security and human rights aspects of migration, trafficking and smuggling will remain targeted by at least seventeen (17) European Agencies (FRONTEX, EUROPOL, EUROJUST, EASO, EPPO, FRA, ENISA, EU-LISA, EIGE, EFCA, EMSA, BEREC, CEPOL, EDA, EUSC, EMCDDA, ESISC etc.) acting on their own, under the purview of different directorates general and EU Commissioners.  FRONTEX will apparently become the lead EU agency dealing with migration, smuggling and trafficking in human beings by way of protecting the external frontiers of the EU.  At the same time EUROPOL will maintain its high profile in intelligence gathering and coordinating police action against traffickers and smugglers.  FRONTEX, which is exclusively a border guard action-oriented structure, remains, unfortunately, an “operative agency”, without an independent mandate to operate within the jurisdiction of the EU member states. This might timidly change over time with the new European Border and Coast Guard Regulation expected to come into force on 5 December 2019, giving EU member states the possibility to confer selected executive powers to the Agency, which will however remain under the national authorities’ supervision.  Grosso modo, national governments keep their sovereign power and decision making in migration and asylum issues.  It is needless to say that the EU external frontiers have to be well protected, but protecting frontiers by civil law enforcement or even military forces is not the solution for the complex issue of migration, smuggling and trafficking in human beings in a globalized world.


Europe is compelled to find a reasonable balance between the need for a foreign work force necessary to boost economic growth, as well as to prevent and combat illegal migration, trafficking and the smuggling of persons to Europe. Migration policy has to strike a balance between development aid, human rights, protection, civil liberties, security and foreign policy.


Therefore, policy makers in Europe have to find a way to deal with preventing and combating illegal migration, smuggling and trafficking in human beings on one hand, and promoting orderly labour and humanitarian migration on the other hand. EU Governments have the duty to construct a balanced future migration policy and thus insist on the creation of an appropriate structure on EU level and above all transfer powers and mandate to the European Commission in dealing with the overall migration policy.


If one takes the commitment of the upcoming EU Commission’s president designate seriously, then tackling the root causes of migration, terrorism, trafficking and smuggling of human beings would result in shifting the competencies from home and internal security affairs into the portfolio of foreign, security, humanitarian affairs and development aid.  Regrettably, as it stands now, the EU institutions, given the current mandate and structures, are compelled to deal with the symptoms of migration only; migration, trafficking, smuggling remain within the jurisdiction of the EU member states.  The EU institutions of today are far from being equipped and mandated to deal effectively and holistically with cross national issues such as migration, smuggling and trafficking.  National governments keep their grip, sovereign power and decision making over these issues.  As long as this persists, no overarching European policy tackling the root causes and symptoms of migration, trafficking and smuggling will exist.  To tackle the root causes of illegal migration, refugee movements, trafficking and smuggling means to address these issues in the countries and regions of origin of migrants and refugees.  Subsequently, the absence of a full mandate given to the EU Commission to deal with migration and related issues will remain a major obstacle in developing a coherent policy and strategy in the upcoming legislative period.  Thus, the EU Commission may become a type of executive secretariat of the EU Council with its 27 active member governments without much to say, while becoming the scape goat of failing European migration policy.  This reality may remain for some time i.e. as long as the individual EU governments remain fully in charge of migration, asylum and trafficking issues; this in spite of the fact that these issues are by their nature cross-frontier, multinational and global.


On the positive side, one may note that the EU governments have finally decided, after years of discussions, to call into existence the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). It should work closely with the EU anti-fraud office (OLAF), the EU judicial cooperation agency (EUROJUST) and the EU police cooperation agency (EUROPOL).  As the latter three agencies do not have a mandate from the EU Council to engage into any criminal investigation or prosecutions within the jurisdiction of the EU member states, the EPPO may fill this gap.


The EPPO will be operative as of 2020, though with a budget far too small compared with the magnitude and volume of issues it will have to cope with.  NGOs and civil society should start to plan their input and cooperation with this new EU agency, which may become of importance in fighting trafficking and the smuggling of human beings.  It would be surprising if the EPPO, once it starts to function, would omit priorities such as smuggling and the trafficking in human beings.



The Role of the EU and its Anti Trafficking Coordinator


The EU anti trafficking coordinator, as mentioned by a number of speakers, has failed to deliver fresh initiatives, to maintain and develop the work of the independent European expert group on trafficking in human beings, and to create a fresh dialogue with the NGOs.  The report delivered to the European Parliament in September 2019 by the EU anti trafficking coordinator is proof of the case.


It appears that for some reason the EU anti trafficking coordinator was unable to take the initiative to discuss with NGOs and civil society a revision and improvements of the provisions of the following legal instruments: Palermo Protocol 2000: Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; the Council of Europe’s Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs 2005; The EU Anti-trafficking Directive 2011/36/EU.


The EU Commission has so far failed to provide a comprehensive report, reviewing progress in implementation of the EU Directive 2011 by the EU member states. It could have done so, similarly to the US TiP (trafficking in persons) report or the well-constructed CoE’s (Council of Europe) GRETA reports, continually monitoring and publishing the progress in implementation of the binding European and International legal instruments.  Furthermore, there is no trace of initiatives undertaken by the EU anti-trafficking coordinator to discuss with NGOs and civil society during the past years the improvements of the draft provisions, and currently the implementation of the UN Migration Compact. This is unfortunate because NGOs and civil society could have helped the EU member states and EU Commission with useful and important suggestions, making this important international instrument entering into force in 2018 more effective in preventing trafficking and protecting victims of trafficking in human beings.


The provisions of the Migration Compact, as stipulated under Objective 4, aim to ensure that all migrants have a proof of legal identity. Objective 9 strengthens the measures against smuggling. Objective 10 stresses the importance of combating trafficking in human beings. Needless to say, it should have been the duty also of the EU anti-trafficking coordinator, next to other services of the EU Commission, to initiate a wide scale discussion within the different EU entities and EC services, the NGOs and the civil society and invite the latter to intervene, especially in those EU countries abstaining from or voting against signing the Migration Compact (namely Hungary and Poland as well as Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia).


The failure of the EU Commission, especially of the European external service to initiate a common approach towards this unique global UN undertaking, favouring dialogue between countries of origin, transit and reception of migrants and victims of trafficking, makes another missed opportunity for Europe to come up with common and coherent approaches towards trafficking, smuggling and migration. In fact, neither the EU Commission and its external service, nor the European Parliament were able to develop any awareness raising initiatives or dialogue with the citizens prior to the signature of the Global UN Migration Pact of 2018. Due to the lack of transparency, the public opinion in the European member states has been blurred by fake news and online populist propaganda alleging that this UN instrument equals a conspiracy undermining national identity, the sovereign power of national governments and resulting in flooding Europe with illegal migrants.  None of it is true.



What should the NGOs and civil society achieve in order to improve EU policy concerning migration, trafficking and smuggling of people?


Taking the above structures and weaknesses of the EU’s decision making into consideration, NGOs and civil society in Europe may have a stronger impact by using digital and online means on the future of European migration policy. Therefore it is legitimate to award them with consequent support and easier access to EU funding in order to engage in consequential and effective action in failing and corrupt states, states with a high level of poverty, countries with a flawed level of democracies, weak provisions to protect civil society and rule of law, countries with evident long history of breaches of human rights, countries and regions suffering from consequences of civil strife and senseless foreign military incursions. These are the regions and countries where migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking are coming from.


The following should be considered for action by the NGOs and the civil society:


1.    to re-adapt the function, mandate, working plan and deliverables of the European anti trafficking coordinator in view of new developments and improved action against trafficking in human beings;


2.    to insist on the installation of an independent council, recruited from the NGOs, academia, press, media and governments under the purview of the vice president of the European Commission responsible for migration. Such a council should be tasked to monitor policies and practices in the EU member states and by the EU institutions respectively;


3.    to make sure and certain that the current European Anti Trafficking Coordinator launches a new initiative within the different services of the EU Commission with the aim to create an internet forum, to reduce online content launched by trafficking and smuggling networks. This should be constructed in the similar way as the European Commission’s initiative against terrorism and allow fruitful discussions with companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, etc. in order to make full use of their technical and innovative capacities to develop tools which can identify trafficking content, making them subject for fast track judicial action. Governments, tech industry and civil society should be invited by the EU Commission without any delay to develop effective and quick means to fight and prevent online trafficking in human beings;


4.    to create a high level legal expert group dealing with the mandate of reviewing and improving the provisions of the following three main binding legal instruments combatting trafficking: the Palermo Protocol 2000: Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs 2005; the EU Anti-trafficking Directive 2011/36/EU;


5.    to undertake efforts vis-à-vis the leadership of the EU parliament, with the aim of facilitating the establishment of a new committee to target migration, THB and smuggling in people, under the purview of one of the vice presidents;


6.    to establish a fresh platform with the participation of EU national coordinators, NGOs, academia, the private sector, press and media, international organisations and EU Agencies under the purview of the Commission’s vice president responsible for migration, to discuss EU policies and new initiatives in the field of migration, trafficking and smuggling;


7.    to start a dialogue with your national governments, advocating the creation of a new EU agency fully mandated to deal with the issue of extra-territorial processing and resettlement of victims of trafficking, refugees and migrants i.e. establishing a processing and resettlement mechanism in the countries of transit and/or origin;


8.    to advocate at the level of national governments, European Parliament and Commission political and administrative steps be taken for the creation of an EU Migration and Resettlement Agency mandated with full overarching operative tasks within and outside the territory of the European Union. In the same vein, the architecture and mandate of numerous EU security agencies such as FRONTEX, EUROPOL, EUROJUST, EASO, EPPO, FRA, ENISA, EU-LISA, EIGE, EFCA, EMSA, BEREC, CEPOL, EDA, EUSC, EMCDDA, ESISC etc. dealing with issues closely related to migration, asylum, security, trafficking, smuggling and human rights should be re-aligned, better coordinated and their number perhaps reduced, thus avoiding duplications and saving EU tax payers money;


9.    to advocate a simplification of excessive administrative obstacles, to participate in the 2020 EC single budget line and instrument for Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation (NDICI) totalling 68 billion €, out of which 1,5 billion € is set for human rights and democracy and another 1,5 billion € for civil society. NGOs dealing with human rights issues such as protection of victims of trafficking should have priority access to these budgets in order to expand their useful work on a multi-annual level.  Needless to say that activities of the NGOs and civil society in the non-EU should NOT be subjected to prior consent of the respective governments;