Trafficking for Sex: Experts Examine the Demand for Sexual Exploitation

© Depositphotos

Dubrovnik (Croatia), 16 May 2022 – Human trafficking is a lucrative, global business that forces and tricks people of all ages to provide services in dangerous and degrading conditions for little or no pay.

Like with other forms of business – whether legal or criminal – it is fuelled by demand for these services.   

Regular research, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), consistently shows that the most detected form of human trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation - with the majority of victims being women and girls.

Last week, over fifty anti-human trafficking experts from around twenty countries and territories met in Croatia to discuss measures to tackle sex trafficking in South-Eastern Europe by focussing on the demand that fuels sexual exploitation.

“Demand is the bridge between the victim and the trafficker – without the demand, there would not be the supply,” said Silke Albert, the Head of UNODC’s Global Programmes against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.

“Traditional counter-trafficking strategies focus on prevention activities aimed at reducing the vulnerability of potential victims.”

“But, today, it is clear that effective strategies need to include demand reduction. We need to fight this crime from all sides,” she added.

South-Eastern Europe records high levels of domestic trafficking and is a constant source of victims who are trafficked to Western and Southern Europe.

“Sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form of trafficking, accounting for around 65 percent of all detected cases,” said Ms. Albert. “While most of the victims are adult women, there is a significant increase in the number of  child victims.”

Diane Martin, a survivor of trafficking who was sexually exploited in her late teens in London and the Middle East, told the conference participants that “now is the time to focus on demand that fuels and sustains the oppressive system of prostitution and sex trafficking”.

She has spent the past 25 years supporting women to exit prostitution and rebuild their lives and is the Vice President of the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council.

“In the same way that markets can grow, they can also be reduced, and evidence shows traffickers favour operating in countries where demand is not tackled,” said Ms. Martin.

“We need legislation and policies addressing demand, and not just to exist on paper, but to be robustly implemented where traffickers, pimps, third party facilitators and sex buyers are criminally held accountable and stopped in their tracks,” she added.

The conference was attended by police and border control officers, prosecutors, judges, and representatives from anti-human trafficking units, civil society, academia, ministerial offices, and the private sector.  

Countries of origin, transit, and destination for trafficking victims from South-Eastern and other parts of Europe were represented at the event.

“We examined several ways to tackle demand such as education and awareness raising initiatives about the consequences of sexual exploitation and the criminalization of the purchase of sexual services provided by victims of trafficking,” said Ms. Albert.

In 2019, Cyprus amended its anti-human trafficking law to add an article that made the use of sexual services from a victim of human trafficking a criminal act.

A guilty conviction can lead to up to ten years in prison or a maximum fine of 50,000 euros. Harsher penalties apply when the victim is a child.

Inspector Eleni Michael, Head of the Office of Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Cyprus Police, said: “If we want to fight the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people, we have to confront the demand and implement the legislation properly.”

She added that since the amendment, several cases against alleged clients have been investigated, some of which are awaiting trial.  

Another case from 2021, involves an 18-year-old girl who was sexually exploited and is now pregnant: “Three members of the human trafficking network are currently being investigated and the victim has cooperated with our Office and provided details of a client, who is also waiting for trial,” said Inspector Michael.

“The ultimate goal is to convince people to abstain from committing these crimes to stop the cycle of demand in order to combat the exploitation of victims, limit the perpetrators' profits and prosecute the traffickers and clients,” she added.  

Participants not only discussed what is working but also focussed on the challenges and obstacles and how to improve cooperation.   

“In addition, we put forward our recommendations which include increasing efforts to detect cases of sexual exploitation in places where this is more likely to occur, such as summer seaside resorts. Or on online websites used for advertising sexual services which could be exploitative,” said UNODC’s Silke Albert.  

“Countries should also strengthen partnerships with technology companies to tackle the demand for sexual exploitation facilitated via the Internet and social media platforms, which has grown considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.  

“And with the financial sector to gather information on money flows to find out who paid for the sexual exploitation services.”

Further information:

The UNODC regional conference was organized in cooperation with the Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities of the Government of the Republic of Croatia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

It was funded by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, and sponsored by the City of Dubrovnik.

This South-Eastern Europe region consists of the following countries/territories: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo  (All references to Kosovo shall be understood in the context of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244), Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.