Human trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea: A new form of slavery?

By Fulya Kocukoglu
Human Rights Analyst

In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in the migration movement across the Mediterranean Sea that has become one of the most important causes and consequences of the political conflicts of the 21st Century. For more than a decade, the migration flow across the Mediterranean Sea has become a focal point of the world. Human trafficking, one of the severe forms of transnational crimes that migrants suffer from[1], is commonly described as the modern slave trade. Although slavery – with all its forms – was eliminated with the Slavery Convention of 1926 [2], there has been a growing body of literature that recognises the current movement across the Mediterranean as the new form of slavery.[3]

In this paper, I will explore whether the trafficking in human beings across the Mediterranean Sea may be analogous to a modern form of slavery. I argue that current movement in the Mediterranean may be considered as a modern form of slavery which is enabled by the human trafficking practices. Human trafficking can also be considered as a mediator for the modern slavery as it involves “prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour, bonded labour, forced child labour, servitude, …, and removal of the organs for economic gain”[4]. Two important decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will support this argument after examining the related international legal framework.

Situation across the Mediterranean Sea

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018 report, there are more than 40 million ‘modern slaves’ around the world. 71 per cent of victims of modern slavery are women and girls while 29 per cent are men. 15.4 million of the modern slaves are forced to marry and 24.9 million are in forced labour.[5]

Since the beginning of the migration movement in the Mediterranean Sea, two main routes have been used by the refugees and migrants arriving in Europe; “the Central Mediterranean route from the North Africa to Italy, and the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus”.[6] However, the Central Mediterranean route became the primary entry point due to the closure of the Eastern Mediterranean route, especially for the migrants coming from Libya. On 2 February 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Italy and Libya to combat against irregular migration, human trafficking, and strengthening border security. The primary objective was to prevent migrant flows into Europe through the financial and technical assistance of Libya.[7] Spain has become the key entry point of the asylum-seekers via the Western Mediterranean route.[8]

Thus, Europe, one of the most preferred destinations by migrants and the human traffickers, has been receiving a great number of victims of trafficking in its territories from different source countries. According to Europol, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Southern Italy, Spain, and Portugal are the countries in which the major human trafficking takes place.[9]

The flows in Italy increased in 2011 due to the political changes in the North African countries (especially in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt) and the war in Syria. It is estimated that “over 170.000 people arrived in 2014, including more than 42.000 Syrians fleeing the war”.[10] “In Italy at various reception sites, the IOM identified 2.000 victims of trafficking in 2014 and 2015 and over 6.000 in 2017”. [11] According to the IOM Report of 2017, the main purpose of human trafficking in Italy is the sexual exploitation[12] and the testimonies of the trafficking victims show that this practice involves many adult and children which appears to be rapidly increasing.

Apart from Italy, Greece is also a key point for human trafficking activities. “In November 2018, the UNHCR reported on the ‘abhorrent’ conditions in the centres in Samos and Lesvos”. [13] Hence, the most vulnerable groups are women who are exposed to sexual and gender-based violence, and unaccompanied and separated minors. According to Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) report regarding the situation of victims of trafficking in Italy, similar to the Greek reception sites, the sites in Italy are overpopulated and unsafe (for example; men, women and children stay in the same dormitory) which causes abuse and violence. Moreover, it is reported that more than 60 Nigerian women were expelled from Sicily despite indicating that they had been victims of trafficking and only four of them could receive positive replies for their asylum application.[14]

Despite the progress made in national and international law, the phenomenon of trafficking and exploitation did not entirely disappear and stayed as a devastating reality for people, especially in Europe and North America.[15] The horrific aspects of the migration have always existed even though slavery and slavery-like practices were abolished many years ago and human trafficking practices were criminalised by several legal instruments.

Slavery and human trafficking under international law

Slavery

The abolition of the slave trade and slavery under international law – after being abolished at the national level[16] – was taken over by the League of Nations, through the International Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade of 1926 (Slavery Convention) and aimed at the “complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and the slave trade by land and sea”.[17] Article 1 (1) and (2) define slavery as “the status or condition of a person whom any or all of powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”, and includes “every act of trade or transport in slaves”.[18]

However, since the beginning of the abolition process, the international community has not been able to agree on the slavery-like practices.[19] The UN General Assembly requested an amendment for the definition since it was not satisfactory.[20] The Supplementary Convention extended and broadened the definition and the scope of slavery.[21]

In the meantime, the United Nations was established, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948.[22] Servitude was prohibited for the first time in the UDHR[23] and later, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (ICCPR) in Article 8.[24] Besides, referring to the Declaration, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits slavery and forced labour in Article 4.[25]

Human Trafficking

An extensive definition of trafficking was mentioned under international law for the first time with Article 3(a) of Trafficking Protocol[26] and later by several international human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[27]

Trafficking in women and children is referred explicitly by several international documents including the Convention against the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which is legally binding many countries. Article 6 of CEDAW obliges States Parties to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”[28]. All forms of sexual exploitation of women are “incompatible with the equal enjoyment of rights by women and with respect got their rights and dignity”[29] and recognised as violence and abuse against women.

According to UNICEF, approximately 28 per cent of the victims of trafficking globally are children[30]; thus, “the significant and increasing international traffic in children for the purpose of sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography”[31] necessitated legal provisions for their protection. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, appropriate measures shall be taken by States Parties “to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances**”[32] [33] and “to prevent the abduction of, sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form”[34]. Additionally, ILO defined the worst forms of child labour in the Convention of 1999.[35]

European Court of Human Rights decision on human trafficking and slavery

The ECtHR has a crucial position in the protection of human rights in Europe. For this reason, two of its cases are worth to mention. The concept of trafficking in human beings which was not mentioned in the ECHR text was included in the ECtHR system for the first time with the Rantsev decision[36] in 2010.

Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia has been a significant case for its influence on the modern understanding of the slavery and slavery-like practices as well as the emphasis on the human rights perspective of the trafficking in human beings. It is vital to mention that the practice of trafficking is violating in some cases Article 2 and 3 of the Convention.[37]

In this case, Mr Rantsev is the father of Ms Rantsev, who came to Cyprus from Russia to become a cabaret artist.[38] On 28 March 2001, she was found dead on the street below the apartment.[39] On 28 October 2005, two Russian women declared that they “could testify about the sexual exploitation taking place there”.[40] The applicant Mr Rantsev made his complaint under Articles 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 of the Convention.[41] [42]

While the Judgment acknowledged human trafficking as a form of slavery, it ruled that slavery today does not necessarily require a right of ownership over a person, but it can “include situations where the victim was subject to violence and coercion thereby giving the perpetrator total control over the victim”[43].

The second case law related to human trafficking and slavery is Chowdury and Others v. Greece [44], which is an important turning point for the human rights law because the complex and hidden forms of coercion that underpin trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation was recognised with this case.[45] The applicants are “Bangladeshi migrants living in Greece without a work permit … to work on the … strawberry farm”[46]. According to the Anti-Slavery International referring to the seasonal workers in the agricultural field, the “work is obtained under threat of punishment (long working hours, low or unpaid wages and threats of violence in the event of refusal to cooperate) and without the consent of the person concerned and constitutes forced labour [47]”. It concluded that in that case, these practices are considered as human trafficking and as a means of imposing slavery or forced labour.

The examined ECtHR decisions have great importance in international law because they both redefined the concepts. In the first case, we have observed that sexual exploitation is a form of slavery, and to reach the definition of slavery, the existence of violence and brutality is not always required; symbolic ownership on the individual can constitute the slavery. The second case has demonstrated another form of exploitation, the forced labour. With this case, the hidden forms of coercion that comprise the basis for human trafficking are recognised by the Court. Thus, forced labour is accepted as exploitation and slavery.

Conclusion

The world has been witnessing horrendous crimes and human rights violations, especially with the recent migration phenomenon. In this short paper, the relation between human trafficking and slavery is explored. According to this research, we have concluded that human trafficking is a horrific crime committed with the intention of exploitation through violence or symbolic ownership on the individual, usually, as we have discussed in the previous chapters, in the form of sexual exploitation, child trafficking and forced labour. On the other hand, slavery has always existed even after the abolition of slavery. Returning to the argument put forward at the beginning of this study, it is now possible to state that the definitions and practices demonstrate the overlapping of these two concepts. Therefore, we can claim that human trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea today may be considered as a modern form of slavery.

References

‘7th General Report on GRETA’s Activities’. (GRETA)Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, March 2018. https://rm.coe.int/greta-2018-1-7gr-en/16807af20e.

Allain Jean. ‘The Definition of Slavery in International Law’. Howard Law Journal 52, no. 2 (2009): 239–75. http://www.heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/howlj52&id=245&collection=journals&index=journals/howlj.

Bales, K, and B Cornell. Slavery Today. Berkley, California: Ground-Work Books, 2008.

Bales, Kevin. ‘“No One Shall Be Held in Slavery or Servitude”: A Critical Analysis of International Slavery Agreements and Concepts of Slavery’. Human Rights Review 2, no. 2 (January 2001): 18–45. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12142-001-1022-6.

‘Children Account for Nearly One-Third of Identified Trafficking Victims Globally’. UNICEF, 29 July 2018. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/children-account-nearly-one-third-identified-trafficking-victims-globally.

Chowdury and Others v. Greece App no 21884/15 (ECtHR, 30 March 2017)

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as amended) (ECHR) (n.d.).

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Adopted 18 December 1979, Entered into Force 3 September 1981) UNGA Res 34/180

Convention on the Rights of the Child (Adopted 20 November 1989, Entered into Force 2 September 1990) UNGA Res 44/25

Craig, Gary, Aline Gaus, Mick Wilkinson, and Klara Skrivankova. Overview and Key Issues. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.364.7102&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Davidson, Julia. ‘New Slavery, Old Binaries: Human Trafficking and the Borders of “Freedom”’. Global Networks 10, no. 2 (2010): 244–261. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-0374.2010.00284.x.

Elechi, Oko, and Elom Ngwe. ‘Human Trafficking: The Modern Day Slavery of the 21st Century’. African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 6, no. 1 (November 2012): 103–19. https://www.umes.edu/ajcjs/.

‘Global Slavery Index 2018’. ILO, IOM and Walk Free Foundation, n.d. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/highlights/.

‘Human Trafficking Through the Central Mediterranean Route’. International Organisation for Migration, 2017. https://italy.iom.int/sites/default/files/news-documents/IOMReport_Trafficking.pdf.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Adopted 16 December 1966, Entered into Force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Adopted 16 December 1966, Entered into Force 3 January 1976) UNGA Res 2200A (XXI)

SAROBMED. ‘Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding’. https://sarobmed.org/italy-libya-memorandum-of-understanding/.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (Adopted 25 May 2000, Entered into Force 18 January 2002) UNGA Res A/RES/54/263

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Adopted 15 November 2000, Entered into Force 25 December 2003) UNGA Res A/RES/55/25

Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia App No 25965/04 (ECtHR, 7 January 2010)

Rezaeian, Mohsen. ‘The Emerging Epidemiology of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery’. Middle East Journal of Business 11, no. 3: 32–36. https://www.academia.edu/27442390/The_emerging_epidemiology_of_human_trafficking_and_modern_slavery.

Scherrer, Amandine. ‘Victims of Trafficking in Hotspots’. European Parliament, February 2019.

Shelley, Louise. ‘Human Smuggling and Trafficking into Europe: A Comparative Perspective’. Migration Policy Institute, February 2014. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/human-smuggling-and-trafficking-europe-comparative-perspective.

Slavery Convention (Adopted 25 September 1926, Entered into Force 9 March 1927) 60 LNTS 253

Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Adopted 7 September 1956, Entered into Force 30 April 1957)

Tessier, Kevin. ‘The New Slave Trade: The International Crisis of Immigrant Smuggling’. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 3, no. 1 (1995): 261–65. http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ijgls/vol3/iss1/15.

Migrant Offshore Aid Station: MOAS. ‘Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery’. https://www.moas.eu/trafficking-modern-day-slavery/.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III)

Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (Adopted 17 June 1999, Entered into Force 19 November 2000) International Labour Organization (ILO) C182


[1] Oko Elechi and Elom Ngwe, ‘Human Trafficking: The Modern Day Slavery of the 21st Century’, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 6, no. 1 (November 2012): 104, https://www.umes.edu/ajcjs/.

[2] ‘Slavery Convention (Adopted 25 September 1926, Entered into Force 9 March 1927) 60 LNTS 253’

[3] K Bales and B Cornell, Slavery Today (Berkley, California: Ground-Work Books, 2008), 9; Gary Craig et al., Overview and Key Issues (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007), 12, ;Julia Davidson, ‘New Slavery, Old Binaries: Human Trafficking and the Borders of “Freedom”’, Global Networks 10, no. 2 (2010): 244 ; Elechi and Ngwe, ‘Human Trafficking: The Modern Day Slavery of the 21st Century’, 105; Kevin Tessier, ‘The New Slave Trade: The International Crisis of Immigrant Smuggling’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 3, no. 1 (1995): 261.

[4] Mohsen Rezaeian, ‘The Emerging Epidemiology of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery’, Middle East Journal of Business 11, no. 3: 32, https://www.academia.edu/27442390/The_emerging_epidemiology_of_human_trafficking_and_modern_slavery.

[5]‘Global Slavery Index 2018’ (Walk Free Foundation, IOM, and ILO), https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/highlights/.

[6] Amandine Scherrer, ‘Victims of Trafficking in Hotspots’ (European Parliament, February 2019), 1.

[7] ‘Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding’, SAROBMED, https://sarobmed.org/italy-libya-memorandum-of-understanding/.

[8] Scherrer, ‘Victims of Trafficking in Hotspots’, 1.

[9] Louise Shelley, ‘Human Smuggling and Trafficking into Europe: A Comparative Perspective’ (Migration Policy Institute, February 2014), 1, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/human-smuggling-and-trafficking-europe-comparative-perspective.

[10] ‘Human Trafficking Through the Central Mediterranean Route’ (International Organisation for Migration, 2017), 8, https://italy.iom.int/sites/default/files/news-documents/IOMReport_Trafficking.pdf.

[11] Scherrer, ‘Victims of Trafficking in Hotspots’, 2.

[12] ‘Human Trafficking Through the Central Mediterranean Route’, 6.

[13] Scherrer, ‘Victims of Trafficking in Hotspots’, 4.

[14] Scherrer, 5.

[15] ‘Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery’, Migrant Offshore Aid Station: MOAS, https://www.moas.eu/trafficking-modern-day-slavery/.

[16] The abolition of the slave trade emerged, for the first time, at the national level in the 19th Century, when the UK and the USA passed the legislation to restrain the slave trade within their own jurisdictions, which also included their British colonies. Another progress in this field took place in 1839 with the establishment of the oldest human rights organisation in the world, Anti-Slavery International, in London.

[17] Slavery Convention (Adopted 25 September 1926, Entered into Force 9 March 1927) 60 LNTS 253’.

[18] Slavery Convention (Adopted 25 September 1926, Entered into Force 9 March 1927) 60 LNTS 253’, Art 1(1) and (2).

[19] Kevin Bales, ‘“No One Shall Be Held in Slavery or Servitude”: A Critical Analysis of International Slavery Agreements and Concepts of Slavery’, Human Rights Review 2, no. 2 (January 2001): 20, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12142-001-1022-6.

[20] Allain Jean, ‘The Definition of Slavery in International Law’, Howard Law Journal 52, no. 2 (2009): 252, http://www.heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/howlj52&id=245&collection=journals&index=journals/howlj.

[21] According to Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention, debt bondage, serfdom, or any institution where a woman is forced to marry or transferred to another person in exchange of money is considered as a slavery-like practice. This article covers also the children and young persons under the age of 18 that any practice of exploitation of the child or young person, “whether for reward or not”, is accepted a slavery. See, Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Adopted 7 September 1956, Entered into Force 30 April 1957)

[22] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III)

[23] Ibid., Art 4: “No one shall be held in slavery and servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

[24] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Adopted 16 December 1966, Entered into Force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171, Art 8.

[25] Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as Amended) (ECHR)

[26] Article 3(a): “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power of a position of vulnerability or of control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of the others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of the organs. See, ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Adopted 15 November 2000, Entered into Force 25 December 2003) UNGA Res A/RES/55/25’

[27] It is stated in Articles (6), (7), (9), (11), and (13) as; everyone has the right to work; as well as the right to gain his living by work which he freely chooses of accepts, right to favourable conditions of work, having safe and healthy working conditions; right to social security, including social insurance, and right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. See ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Adopted 16 December 1966, Entered into Force 3 January 1976) UNGA Res 2200A (XXI)’

[28] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Adopted 18 December 1979, Entered into Force 3 September 1981) UNGA Res 34/180

[29] Ibid., Art 6.

[30] ‘Children Account for Nearly One-Third of Identified Trafficking Victims Globally’, UNICEF, 29 July 2018, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/children-account-nearly-one-third-identified-trafficking-victims-globally.

[31] ‘Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (Adopted 25 May 2000, Entered into Force 18 January 2002) UNGA Res A/RES/54/263’,

[32] ** ‘Narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances’ as stated in Article 33 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

[33] ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child (Adopted 20 November 1989, Entered into Force 2 September 1990) UNGA Res 44/25’, Art 33.

[34] Ibid., Art 35.

[35] Article 3: …the term the worst forms of child labour comprises:

(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;

(d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

See, ‘Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (Adopted 17 June 1999, Entered into Force 19 November 2000) International Labour Organization (ILO) C182’.

[36] Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia App No 25965/04 (ECtHR, 7 January 2010)

[37] Article 2: Right to life; Article 3: Prohibition of torture

[38] Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia App No 25965/04 (ECtHR, 7 January 2010), para 15.

[39] Ibid., para 25.

[40] Ibid., para 69.

[41] Ibid., para 3.

[42] According to the report of the Cypriot Ombudsman on the regime regarding entry and employment of alien women as artistes in entertainment places in Cyprus (November 2003), “the word artiste in Cyprus has become synonymous with prostitute”, See, ‘Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia App No 25965/04 (ECtHR, 7 January 2010)’ (n 35), para 83. It is noted that those women are sent to Lebanon, Syria, Greece or Germany, after having worked in Cyprus for a six-month period (See, Ibid., para 86). In addition to that, “in various forms of pressure and coercion most of these women are forced by their employers to prostitution under cruel conditions, which infringe upon the fundamental human rights, such as individual dignity and human dignity” (See, Ibid., para 89)

[43] Ibid., para 266.

[44] Chowdury and Others v. Greece App no 21884/15 (ECtHR, 30 March 2017).

[45] ‘7th General Report on GRETA’s Activities’ ((GRETA)Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, March 2018), 6, https://rm.coe.int/greta-2018-1-7gr-en/16807af20e.

[46] Chowdury and Others v. Greece App no 21884/15 (ECtHR, 30 March 2017) , para 5.

[47] Ibid., para 84.

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