Borders against human trafficking

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people fall prey to human traffickers. This is what the official statistics say, but the crime of trafficking in human beings cannot be fully measured and expressed in definite numbers, as most of this illegal practice happens in the shadows and on the periphery of the observable reality. This crime is difficult to track but there are points of vital importance for identifying the victims and exposing the perpetrators – the borders are one of them. On the occasion of the EU Anti-Trafficking Day, Frontex wishes to remind all travellers: border guards are trained to help you.

The border effect

The main purpose of the EU Anti-Trafficking Day is to raise awareness of trafficking in human beings by building up a network of different actors involved in fighting this crime and supporting the victims. Human trafficking does not start at the border, but the border often plays a crucial role in stopping or, at least, reducing this felony and providing adequate information to the victims. Every border guard pays special attention to travellers not only to check their documents and confirm their identity but, most of all, to establish their vulnerability status. To an average traveller, all additional questions may seem like a hassle, but these border interviews have everything to do with the safety of the travellers.

Always pay attention to vulnerable people

Counteracting human trafficking is a responsibility of all law enforcement units, but their cooperation with humanitarian and educational organisations is key to helping the victims – the sooner they get the information about the risks and the available assistance, the greater the chance for saving them. In fact, all EU border guards are trained to look out for vulnerable travellers, such as children or refugees, to try and stop human trafficking at the borders before the victims disappear into a world of exploitation. For instance, the Agency has produced detailed guidelines, such as VEGA handbooks for children at land borders and children at sea borders to protect the youngest ones.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the EU’s external border with this country has become a special risk zone, also in terms of human trafficking. Frontex deployes ca. 200 officers to different locations along this border as part of its joint operation Terra and the status agreement with Moldova, but one of the Slovakian crossing points represents a particularly interesting reference. This is where two EU border guards, Ionut and Igors, support the Slovakian colleagues and were also supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), deployed under the VEGA initiative.

“I work as the first line document expert,” says Ionut, “but am also trained to spot suspicious behaviour or any signs of distress or trauma that may suggest that the person at my checkpoint is at risk of being trafficked. In case of any doubt, I may ask additional questions and direct this person to the second line where they can talk more and receive more information before it’s too late.”

“At the border, you can either let somebody go or stop them because of your suspicion,” adds Igors. “However, if all their documents are correct and there is no legal reason to stop them, the most important thing you can do is to raise their awareness and give them practical tips: who to turn to, what to do. Many victims do not realise that they are being manipulated into a horrible situation.”

This legal character of our borders is quintessential – Ionut and Igors have excellent skills and instincts to detect suspicious situations, but their action must be anchored in the legislation in force. They have the right to ask the travellers about their means of subsistence, the foreseen accommodation in the host country, the size of their luggage, etc., but there is little they can do if the victim is not aware of the risk or accepts it. The border guards often read the real story from the body language of the victims and may act upon it. It is called traveller’s profiling, an important element of crime detection.

“We know special interviewing techniques, but human psychology is complicated. When people are vulnerable and in fear because their perpetrator is observing them from a distance or are simply afraid of officers in uniform, they might not open to tell everything. Still, we must make sure that they are informed about the potential danger they may be in and the available help,” explains Ionut.

It is a perfect opportunity to remind everyone about the international sign that all victims of human trafficking, kidnapping or any other crime can use to signal that they are under somebody’s unwanted control – show your palm outward and place your thumb on the palm of your hand, then close your fingers down around your thumb. All law enforcement representatives will understand immediately that you are crying out for help.

All hands on deck

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has been working on training curricula and other material for border guards for some years and are now sharing this expertise also with Frontex officers in Slovakia and other locations. Luca Curci is the head of the UNHCR Liaison Office to Frontex, the post that he took after working with refugees in various countries including in West Africa. He speaks firmly about what is needed to create a “protection-sensitive border management” system:

“We have learnt from our experience across the world that the response to human trafficking cannot be exclusively one of a security/police operation. In the border context in particular, it requires additional skills and knowledge that build upon the guards’ standard training.”

According to Luca, an effective way to combat human trafficking would involve a combination of several elements, such as the law enforcement tactics, community strength, intelligence, the contribution of human rights organisations that can introduce a protection angle, meaning the ability to identify categories of people at risk or people with specific vulnerabilities and protection needs to be referred to appropriate services, in line with applicable human rights standards and legislation. Both Ionut and Igors confirm that where the regular migratory flow through the border changes into a massive influx of asylum seekers, this extra UNHCR assistance and advice on how to act, how to apply correctly the co-existing rules for border management and refugees’ rights, such as the principle of non-refoulement, are highly appreciated. In fact, where there is a risk of human trafficking, everyone’s input is welcome – the border guards, the police, the human right monitors, the cultural mediators, and the NGOs.

Luca from UNHCR sums it all up: “There are so many reasons why people are forced to move across international borders. This makes every story of human trafficking completely different, and each requires a different, individual response and help. We must think about those who are afraid or traumatised, those who are too young to speak, those who cannot read or speak any foreign language. It is essential that once they find themselves at the border, there is a guard ready to listen and hear their individual story and that there are referral pathways to assist those in need of protection.”