Human trafficking – how not to fall into modern slavery

Every year in December the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is celebrated. From today’s point of view, the manifestations of slavery seem to be a forgotten phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is still taking on new forms, often remaining unnoticed, although it takes place on a large-scale and involves a big part of the society. One of the most painful and dangerous criminal phenomena of this kind is human trafficking. This pertinent topic is rising in discussions around the world among experts in different fields who are trying to find the most effective ways to stop criminals who have mastered specific schemes and to help their victims.

According to the report of the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Lithuania, in 2020, 27 pre-trial investigations on domestic and international trafficking in human beings were conducted in Lithuania. However, the actual number of victims of trafficking might be much higher, as these people often hide their situation, do not know where to turn for help and are thus not identified. 75 percent of the registered victims of human trafficking have been affected specifically within our country. Most often, people involved in crimes become hostages of forced labor, victims of sexual exploitation, forced marriages, illegal adoptions, and so on.

The behaviour of the perpetrators is recognisable

According to the prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Corruption Investigation Department of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Lithuania, Aida Japertienė, anyone can encounter human trafficking in their environment, but may not always notice and understand that people around them or even themselves are victims of exploitation.

“Every crime is specific. Men are most often involved in crimes such as drug distribution, shoplifting, and others. A specific type of crime is fictitious marriages for a certain amount of money, usually with third-world country nationals, chosen by vulnerable women as their only way of getting out of difficult circumstances. Most victims of sexual exploitation are women, while men experience it as well, but they usually tend to not seek help. The most vulnerable group due to their age, of course, are children,” says the prosecutor, who has handled many cases during her years of practice.

The question is – how to identify these human trafficking processes? After all, they involve our loved ones, neighbours, community members, regardless of nationality, gender, age, or beliefs.

“In most cases, crime schemes are quite simple and happen in everyday life. For example, a person looks for a job on a job posting platform, or someone who has already gone abroad to work recommends them a good job in a certain place without realising that they themselves are being exploited. In this way they fall into the traps of labor slavery together. There is also another painful but common case where an employee or a trader bends a close neighbour, classmate or relative in his or her favour and their seemingly innocent communication turns into human trafficking because those individuals are trusted: meetings take place in a safe, usually pleasant environment. The potential victim is treated well, enchanted with promises of excellent working conditions, and so on,” says Aida Japertienė.

Potential victims are usually socially vulnerable people who do not have the right skills to distinguish lies from the truth. In such situations the most important thing is not to lose vigilance, be more critical, and first ask yourself: why a complete stranger is being so nice, offering a trip abroad, free accommodation, great working conditions? Such promises often translate into other forms of human trafficking.

According to Alvydas Šakočius, head of the National Association against Trafficking in Human Beings, human trafficking is a special category of crime because it involves movement of people across borders, so the provision of assistance is complex and requires the attention of various parties. Lithuania has established special funds to provide assistance to victims of human trafficking. Such persons may or may not have testified in co-operation with law enforcement authorities, but they have been affected, as also possibly their relatives.

Comprehensive social assistance to victims

In 2019, the National Anti-Trafficking Association has been established in Lithuania, uniting 5 non-governmental organisations providing comprehensive social assistance to victims of trafficking. The association is currently available to reach 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, via one helpline number +370 800 91119 from both Lithuania and abroad. Assistance is provided in Lithuanian, Russian and English, and the individual’s query is promptly forwarded to the competent authority.

“The main goal of the association is to mobilise its members for coordinated activities when those seeking for help need complex assistance – not only legal, material, but also psychological and emotional support – a whole package of social services. In the human trafficking litigation process, prevention of adverse effects is especially important, especially if victims are afraid to cooperate with law enforcement,” says Alvydas Šakočius. “Thus, the Association carries out both general and special prevention. The latter is particularly important in identifying vulnerable groups in society who have the potential to become victims of human trafficking more easily, including foreigners, especially those from third-world countries. Working with such groups or individuals is very important. Equally important, of course, is the dissemination of information to the general public in cooperation with all the institutions.”

An expanding network of informal cooperation

Darius Joneikis, an official of Kaunas County Chief Police Commissariat, who works with prevention programs against human trafficking, has been organising various events with his colleagues for the past few years, involving more and more people of good will. The aim of disseminating such events and activities is to reach the widest possible audience – who knows, maybe after reading a leaflet at a mobile stand, a mother will suddenly realise that her daughter, who has just met a youngster trying to talk her into going abroad, can become a victim of a criminal network, or someone will warn a friend when they recognise a potential danger.

“I am glad that I am in a team working to find as many ambassadors as possible in the country’s municipalities and elderships who can spread the word about human trafficking. Our practice shows that the informal cooperation network is really effective, because the number of initiatives is growing, the wave of information is travelling fast,” says Darius Joneikis, the official. “Trafficking in human beings is a global problem. Victims often travel through several countries, so the continuity of assistance is necessary abroad as well. Thus, we are very happy with Lithuanians abroad who take part in our initiatives. Our goal is to reach the public: from a child who falls into the pornography network online to an adult who goes out to earn money and falls into the traps of fraudsters but does not dare to turn to the authorities. That person may not even realise that he or she is a victim, and a trained professional may anticipate an accident or identify the person who has already become a victim.”

Various IT solutions are used to combat today’s slavery. One of the successful tools is the mobile app “Raktas developed by Spanish Lithuanians, which can be downloaded for free from Google Play, App Store. A person going abroad, having registered his / her contact details in the app, can call for help with just one click of the help button. The app also lists the contacts of the responsible representatives of Lithuanian communities in various parts of the country, local police and organisations fighting human trafficking, so that a person can turn to them at any time with their questions. The app is currently only suitable for those who speak Lithuanian.

The Lithuanian Police Chaplain invites for understanding

As already mentioned, a person who has fallen into a fraudster’s trap is vulnerable. Sometimes even after realising that they are being exploited and experience physical or psychological violence, they tend to blame themselves for it. Thus, the support and understanding of those around them is particularly important. In truth, it is not always received.

“The stigmatisation of victims is a very important aspect of our society that tends to blame the victims for supposedly being stupid for getting into such situations. It is important not to be quick to judge. Often the people in trouble are already afraid and ashamed of what those around them might say. Therefore, we must first help them, be sensitive and attentive, provide informal community assistance here and now, become an ambulance-like helpers, because various formal legal procedures can take years,” says the chief police chaplain, priest Algirdas Toliatas. Together with the Public Institution “Ramintoja”, the priest is involved in the prevention activities of human trafficking, creates information tools that help to identify the threats of human trafficking and encourage victims to seek help.

Website of the National Anti-Trafficking Association: https://stop-trafficking.lt/.