For more than a year, within the third phase of the Balkans Act Now project, funded by the European Commission, which aims to promote systematic monitoring of anti-trafficking policies by establishing, inter alia, a national rapporteur mechanism, ASTRA, together with BAN3 partners, has publicly promoted the significance of the national rapporteur and advocated the establishment of such a mechanism in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as strengthening of its function in Northern Macedonia, where the mechanism has already been established. As part of these efforts, an online study visit to the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings in the Netherlands and other key actors in the field of combating trafficking in human beings in that country was organized on 10th and 11th September. This online study visit is an alternative event, and essentially a substitute of the real visit to the National Rapporteur of the Netherlands, which was supposed to take place in September this year, but was postponed to the next year due to the known circumstances caused by the COVID-19 virus. The aim of the event was to enable relevant representatives of state institutions to get acquainted with the function and role of the institution of the national rapporteur, through the example of the Netherlands, and lobby for its introduction and efficient functioning in our country and in the other countries of BAN3 project partner organizations.
The first day of the online study visit was focused on comprehending the significance and functioning of the institution The National Rapporteur in the Netherlands, through a presentation and interview with Herman Bolhaar, the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, especially women and children in this country. The presentation and discussion were attended by 38 governmental and non-governmental actors in the field of combating trafficking in human beings from the region of the BAN3 project.
Mr. Bolhaar reminded the audience that the National Rapporteur as an institution has existed in the Netherlands for 20 years (the Netherlands was the first country to introduce it), and that it has not been independent from the very beginning. The institution of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings is engaged in researching trafficking in human beings, collecting data and creating reports on the situation in the field of trafficking in human beings in his country. These reports, together with recommendations for improving the functioning, are periodically sent to the relevant legislative and executive bodies, and they serve as guidelines for action and as important tools for creating and implementing further anti-trafficking policies.
In his presentation, Mr. Bolhaar repeatedly pointed out that the problem of human trafficking should be viewed as broadly as possible and that international cooperation and cooperation on the local level, i.e. cooperation with those responsible locally – majors and other decision makers are equally important in the process of improving the protection of victims and in the prevention of human trafficking. “It is important to be on the street, where the problem is happening, because early detection of the problem is very important.”– Bolhaar pointed out. The current goal of the institution he leads, and of their partners at the national level in the Netherlands is to establish a holistic approach to victims, but it must also apply to perpetrators. To support this view, he presented data of their research, which show that victims of trafficking are often former victims of domestic violence, that many of them are young, and that 36% of minors generally experienced some form of sexual violence, which makes them vulnerable. In addition, 50% of perpetrators of crime are temporary perpetrators, and the percentage of young people bellow the age of 24 is also very high. At the same time, 77% of the perpetrators come from the environment close to the victim. So, in the Netherlands, 1,372 victims of human trafficking were officially identified last year, but the National Rapporteur estimates that there were many more – between 5,000 and 7,500; 56% of the identified victims were Dutch citizens, cases of sexual exploitation were on the rise (more than half of all trafficking cases); the problem of trafficking in human beings the issue of key human rights of victims of trafficking in human beings, and solving this problem requires a coordinated approach of institutions and non-governmental organizations at all levels. “Prevention is placed at the end of this coordinated approach, and for it to be possible, a huge number of partners need to be involved.”– Bolhaar repeated.
All these conclusions are supported by facts from the field (there are both regional and local monitoring of anti-trafficking activities in the Netherlands and information are regularly provided to the National Rapporteur) summarized in periodic reports with recommendations distributed to all relevant institutions and actors in the Netherlands: ministries of interior and foreign affairs, of health, security, education, social protection, etc. and to non-governmental organizations. In addition to the reports, the institution of the National Rapporteur also publishes thematic research, in order to look at the problem of human trafficking from various aspects, as well as informative publications and brochures for young people and vulnerable groups.
After the presentation of the National Rapporteur in the Netherlands, Mr. Bolhaar, the participants’ questions followed, which concerned the functioning in the changed conditions due to COVID-19, the cooperation with governmental and non-governmental sector, the respect and implementation of the National Rapporteur’s recommendations by institutions etc. Mr. Bolhaar said that due to COVID-19, prostitution in the Netherlands has become illegal again, which is a new problem for them. In addition, COVID has drawn attention to terrible situation of migrants in the Netherlands, who, in addition to staying in unsanitary accommodation, are often exploited for labour purposes. In their answers to the participants, both Bolhaaar and his associate Selma de Groot pointed out that the cooperation with both the non-governmental and governmental sectors is of key importance. In support of the significance of recognizing the importance of NGOs by the Dutch Government speaks the fact that the NGO Comensha coordinates anti-trafficking activities in the Netherlands at the national level. “Responsible government liaises with human rights organizations on its own initiative, in order to protect them more effectively.”, Bolhar said. Regarding the implementation of the recommendations of the National Rapporteur by the institutions, Mr. Bolhaar pointed out that the deadline for their implementation does not exist, but that they are implemented in the most cases, and if not, and if the National Rapporteur considers the recommendations important, they become a part of the reports that follow, and over time they get implemented.
Working with the state institutions that are supposed to provide data to the National Rapporteur “can be a big challenge, the numbers are declining, although we know that in reality the number of cases is growing, but we create a situation where they have an interest in acting proactively, and ask the question – if you do not take care of human rights, then how do you do your job in general?”– Herman Bolhaar, National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, especially women and children in the Netherlands, concluded his presentation.
The second day of the online study visit was dedicated to cooperation with the National Rapporteur (and other actors) and to the importance of data collection for the fight against human trafficking. Brian Varma, a representative of the National Coordination Centre for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, NGO Comensha, spoke on the topic. Comensha is a non-governmental organization whose main task is to register / identify victims and potential victims of trafficking, and to collect data on the profiles and the number of victims of this crime. These data are used to identify systemic barriers, trends and positive factors in the implementation of anti-trafficking policies. The data are sent to the relevant actors, but mainly to the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, who includes them in his regular report, which is made public every 18th October.
Mr. Varma dedicated the first part of the presentation to the segments of the work and functioning of the coordinating organization, as well as to the trends in the field of human trafficking in the Netherlands. Comensha has existed since 1986, and currently it receives more than 90% of its funding for dealing with human trafficking from the Dutch government. It deals with all forms of human trafficking, but Mr. Varma points out that COVID caused an economic crisis that has brought to the fore the problem of forced labour and labour exploitation, especially in the migrant population. Comensha, as well as the National Rapporteur, believes that the officially registered number of victims does not correspond to reality, but according to the estimates of this organization, it is even higher than the one mentioned by the Rapporteur, and amounts to around 30,000 victims annually. The decline in the number of registered / identified victims is particularly noticeable as a result of COVID-19, as for example many police representatives or labour inspectors worked from home, and not in the field. Otherwise, Comensha sees itself as a link between all actors in the anti-trafficking field at the operational, tactical and structural level. That is why they hold regular meetings with regional anti-trafficking coordinators, other alike NGOs and other institutions, some of which are in medical field, which provide assistance and shelter to victims, as well as with trade unions and employment agencies. At the strategic level, they are a member of the national anti-trafficking unit, headed by the chief prosecutor. They are also a member of the key international networks such as La Strada International and the EU Civil Society Platform.
Regarding the registration, i.e. identification, of victims and potential victims of human trafficking, Brian Varma pointed out that this task has become quite difficult after the introduction of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in 2018, because many victims are afraid and reluctant to give their information, although Comensha only passes on general information on victims. All that requires extra efforts and makes many victims invisible.
In addition to having its own shelter and providing various types of assistance, Comensha coordinates specialized and regular shelters, call centres and connects victims with local coordinators and other assistance providers. The Dutch Government partially finances the shelter and the support, and that relates to the victims from the third world countries, while the victims from the Netherlands with a regulated legal status are taken care of by the municipalities on whose territory they are located.
The main trends in the field of combating trafficking in human beings, as Mr. Varma pointed out, are the GDPR and the difficulties caused by it, lack of places in the shelters, increase in the number of victims from Uganda and Nigeria, who declare themselves as members of the LGBT population in order to obtain residence visas, waiting lists for the specialized support such as (psychological help), lack of staff in the existing shelters. The emergence of the COVID-19 virus has influenced the occurrence of some new trends such as the online prostitution and the increasing number of potential victims of labour exploitation due to economic crisis.
The main challenges and advantages of such an organization of work in the field of combating human trafficking, which has both good and bad sides, as Comensha representative Brian Varma pointed out, are the following: multi-level financial responsibility in terms of division of responsibilities, communication between the police and the health sector, a large number of organizations dealing with the problem of trafficking in human beings, the Government bound by contracts, cooperation with NGOs without the involvement of state authorities; as well as a multidisciplinary and cross-border approach, cooperation between the public and private sectors (Please Disturb Project – training hotel staff to recognize and report human trafficking, and Follow the Money Project – finding bank transactions that point to human trafficking), corporate social responsibility.
Brian Varma’s presentation was followed by a number of questions by the participants, related to cooperation with the National Rapporteur, the mentioned projects in the field of public-private cooperation, specialized shelters for victims with mental challenges, the issue of compensation for victims and Comensha funding by the Government. It is particularly interesting for our context, that the Netherlands has examples of successfully implemented compensation for victims of trafficking, but Comensha believes that this is not enough. It is a curiosity that the Netherlands has had a practice, for 2.5 years already, that victims can receive compensation money even before the end of the trial.
The second day of the Online Study Visit to the National Rapporteur in the Netherlands ended with the general conclusion that both presentations brought a handful of new information and knowledge, which was confirmed by the dynamic Q&A sessions that followed. We hope that 2021 will bring a similar live meeting for us. Until then, now with the corroboration that we are on the right track, ASTRA and the partners in the BAN3 project will continue the advocacy activities aimed at introducing or improving the work of the institution of the National Rapporteur in the countries of the region.