Project Desire | Research project on trafficking in human beings

Project Desire | Research project on trafficking in human beings

Project DESIrE

Our mission is to contribute to the prevention of trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation.
How? By generating a better understanding of the impact of different legislative and policy approaches to sex work on the demand for such services.

We are a group of researchers and NGO-workers who aim to understand how law and policy can change the landscape of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe. Our mission is to identify, develop and share effective best practices on how reducing the demand for sexual services by trafficked persons may prevent trafficking in human beings.

Understanding demand for sexual services, human trafficking for sexual exploitation and existing law and policies in three European countries (Croatia, The Netherlands and Poland)

Executive summary

This project aims to fill this gap by generating a better understanding of the impact of different approaches to sex work legislation and policies on the prevalence of trafficking in human beings. DESIrE is particularly focused on varying approaches in different countries: Croatia, The Netherlands and Poland. In brief, the Netherlands legalise sex work. In Croatia the sex workers are criminalised. In Poland the approach is somewhere in between. The current report is the culmination of fieldwork and an online survey undertaken in three countries: Croatia, The Netherlands and Poland with five target groups, i) persons selling sex, ii) persons buying sex, iii) victims of human trafficking, iv) policy makers, law enforcement and civil society and v) the general public, in order to determine:

> the understanding of and attitudes towards sex work (section 3);
> the understanding of sexual exploitation and the awareness of human trafficking for the purpose of exploitation (section 4) and;
> the knowledge and awareness of law and policy that seeks to regulate the sex industry, and which also may be used to prevent human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation (section 5).

The report concludes that:

Attitudes towards sex work are varied and complex, not only across countries, but also within different groups within the same country. An acceptance of individual freedom and choice was clearly highly valued in the three countries: this manifested itself in relatively high public support for the legal protection of the rights of persons selling sex and very low public support for legal measures that criminalise the buying and selling of sex. However, a certain ambivalence emerged whereby a ‘not in my backyard attitude’ led to a certain ‘public hypocrisy’ whereby the apparent characteristics of personal tolerance did not translate to overall acceptance of sex work.

The link between sex work and the possibility of experiencing violence and exploitation was raised in all three countries. Interviewees in the three countries associated sexual exploitation with coercion, physical abuse and financial and labour exploitation. Among the general public, many respondents in the three countries, thought that sex work often or sometimes involves sexual exploitation. Persons buying sex were not viewed as the main source of exploitation, rather pimps and facilitators – who in some instances were seen as adopting a protective role – were more often identified as sources of danger and exploitation employing strategies of romantic involvement and the promise of a better life.

New forms and trends in the sex industry identified included the shift of the sex industry online and underground. Some suggested that changes to policy regulating more visible forms of the sex industry has created an economic imperative of persons selling sex to shift underground. Ultimately, these changes increased the vulnerability of those involved, due to a policy gap where public authorities could not regulate the provision of sexual services leading to less safety and protection of persons selling sex.

Safety and protection of persons selling sex was, however, identified as key priorities by all groups of interviewees in all countries. Respondents tended to assign an important role to the authorities in providing assistance and protection to persons selling sex who are in need or who want to exit. Among the general public, however, opinions differed regarding the question of whether the authorities should provide safety for people that want to sell and buy sex.

Conclusions on the effects of legislation and policy towards the perception of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation were difficult to make due to a limited connection between sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation emerging from the data. As a result, when proposing means to prevent human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, respondents did not identify the reduction of demand for sexual services as a priority strategy. Nevertheless, the major preventive measures identified can be adopted for both sexual exploitation and human trafficking, namely: 1) increased legal protection of (the labour conditions of) persons selling sex; 2) increased accessibility of (protection by) the authorities; 3) strong and targeted judicial action against exploiters and traffickers and the sectors of organised crime in which they operate and 4) various alternatives to legislation and policy.

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