Laws are signals: Europe could learn from Sweden on human trafficking prevention

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

The sex industry is very lucrative, but is closely linked to human trafficking. [Nina Jean/Flickr]

To reduce the demand for human trafficking, legislation should shift the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services, rather than those who sell it, argues Linnéa Engstrom.

Linnéa Engstrom is a Swedish Green party MEP and a member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. 

The overlapping of trafficking in human beings with migration, the arrival of refugees and smuggling put people vulnerable to human trafficking in serious danger. It also jeopardises progress we have already made.

Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation is a form of violence against women and it must be approached and prosecuted appropriately. As victims of crime, people already involved in the sex industry need better rights protection. The victims must be protected and afforded full support and retribution. A reduction of the demand for trafficking in human beings and sexual services can be achieved through legislation shifting the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services of trafficked persons, and away from those who sell it.

As a member of the Swedish Greens, I emphasise data confirming the deterrent effect that the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services has had in Sweden, my native country and constituency, as a member of the European Parliament. The Swedish model, criminalising those who buy sexual services, has an obvious and profound normative effect. It has true potential to change social attitudes in order to reduce the demand for the services of victims of human trafficking. Those who claim otherwise often state that it complicates the lives of those working in the sex industry. This may well be the case in the short term, as some of the prostitution moves underground. But the gains in the long run are easy to detect.

There is significantly less prostitution in Sweden than in the neighbouring countries. In fact, hardly any country in the world has fewer problems with human trafficking than Sweden, according to the Swedish police. Four years after the introduction of a sex-purchase law in Norway, based upon the Swedish model, the Norwegian government chose to evaluate its effects in 2014. The results are striking and positive, showing among other things that the demand for prostitutes has been significantly reduced.

Trafficking in human beings is of course a complex issue and there are many problems yet to be tackled. The sex industry is extremely lucrative, which is why there will always be powerful actors wanting to support it. Despite the prostitution ban, for instance, the number of convictions in Sweden has remained low. Only a handful of pimps are each year sentenced to prison. Most customers get away with fines, although their names are entered in the police registers. A recent report on trafficking in human beings in Europe signals underreporting of the crime and indicates a poor record of identification of the victims of trafficking of all genders. The main problem seems to be the lack of political will.

But with the legislation in place in Sweden, our police officers have learnt to understand that prostitution is not a normal business. The attitude has spread to the population at large. There is no doubt that a ban on the purchase of sexual services brings about fundamental, albeit slow, change in societal attitudes.

A report to be voted in the European Parliament on Thursday at the Strasbourg plenary calls on the European Commission to further fully examine links between demand for sexual services and trafficking in human beings. I fully support this as a good start. But it is not enough. We have to move towards punishing the purchasers of sex in order to achieve a normative effect. Otherwise we can forget about tackling the crime of trafficking in human beings.