FEATURE-Netherlands leads way in battle against sex slavery, trafficking

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 17 November 2014 13:00 GMT

A view of the red light district in Amsterdam December 17, 2007. REUTERS/Koen van Weel

Image Caption and Rights Information

Netherlands awarded an "AA rating" and high scores for its victim assistance and criminal justice response by human rights group

By Katie Nguyen

AMSTERDAM, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Marie's eyes lower and her voice softens to a whisper when she describes being pimped by the man who asked her to be his girlfriend just a week before.

The Nigerian man had picked her up from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris when she arrived from her native Benin. She was given his number by a broker who promised to help with a flight out of the West African country and a new life abroad.

"He said his friend wanted to go out with me. I said, 'How is this possible? I'm your girlfriend'. But he told me there was no problem, that this man had lots of money," Marie recalls during in an interview in a shelter.

She was taken to a club that night and when she went home with her boyfriend's friend, there were two other men waiting for her. All three had sex with her until dawn, she said.

And so began months of captivity and sexual exploitation.

"He kept me in his house and every day and every night, he brought men to sleep with me. He also took me to the houses of other men," said Marie, in her 20s, who asked not to use her real name.

This continued in Amsterdam where Marie's pimp took her next. She worked in a private house away from the city's neon-lit red light district where prostitution is legal and sex workers tout their services from windows, clubs, and peep shows.

But it ended when he left her alone one day for a phone call. Marie made a dash for the street and a passing police car.

Within hours, she was placed in one of the Netherlands' three specialised shelters for victims of trafficking, an airy building with coloured murals on the walls, to begin a 90-day "reflection and recovery" period offered to trafficking victims.

When it comes to tackling modern day slavery, the Netherlands is the world leader, according to the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian human rights group which on Monday ranked it first of 167 nations by their response to the problem.

The Netherlands was awarded an "AA rating" and high scores for its victim assistance and criminal justice response.


The Amsterdams Coordinatiepunt Mensenhandel (ACM) shelter, run by the local HVO-Querido Foundation, was opened in 2007 and helps around 200 trafficking victims a year.

Since arriving there, Marie has received counselling, legal aid, language lessons, a weekly allowance of 50 euros ($62) and the services of a dedicated social worker as part of the package of welfare benefits entitled to her under the scheme.

In 2013, the country registered 1,437 potential victims of trafficking from 1,711 in 2012. About a third were Dutch, 13 percent Romanian, 12 percent Hungarian, nine percent Bulgarian.

Of the total, 945 were possible victims of sex trafficking.

Official figures show between 2009 and 2013, the average conviction rate of perpetrators rose to over 70 percent from 50-60 percent in the period 2007 to 2011.

The Netherlands legalised voluntary prostitution in 2000 to bring it out of the shadows despite critics and some academics saying this would lead to more trafficking.

But Walk Free found legalising prostitution combined with tighter anti-trafficking regulations had been effective.

Experts credit the use of specialised police units, prosecutors, judges and courts as one of the strengths of the Dutch response to human trafficking, a crime that is often so complex its definition is the longest in the penal code.

"Where there are specialised prosecutors - and I've seen this all over Europe - then the number of convictions start going up," said Jan van Dijk, professor at the University of Tilburg and a member of the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) of the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog.

"Without specialised prosecutors there is no chance. Even better if you have judges who understand ... this crime."

Another defining feature of the Dutch approach is the appointment of an independent national rapporteur on human trafficking to keep an eye on the problem.

"If you don't want to see trafficking around the corner, it's not there. Only if you proactively search for it, will you find it," Rapporteur Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "Victims do not always come forward, so you have to have eyes in the community."

Often those eyes belong to local government officials, housing and tax inspectors and staff at the chamber of commerce, where prostitutes must register to be able to legally work, who are all trained to spot irregularities in their stories.

"Criminals are inventive and they use people to sell services whether it's for organ harvesting, labour, sex, begging, stealing," Dettmeijer-Vermeulen said. "(We must) be as inventive as they are, more so."


Despite these measures, experts say the Netherlands could do more to tackle child trafficking, forced labour outside the sex trade and ensure companies keep supply chains free of slavery.

"Trafficking for sexual exploitation has been a very strong focus ... but some would say this has been to the detriment of a focus on forced labour in other sectors," said Fiona David, head of global research at Walk Free Foundation.

Policing private houses like the one Marie worked in, and encouraging victims to come forward are challenges.

"In most of the countries they come from, they don't have trust in the police, so that's a big problem," said one police officer, who requested anonymity.

Once during a routine inspection in the red light district, he met a young woman who was visibly distressed.

"You ask her a few questions and she starts crying. She doesn't want to talk to you but you see the misery. You give her your telephone number and your card and explain all the ways you can help her, and she just cries," he said.

"The next day she's gone. Nobody knows where she is."

But for Marie, speaking to the police gave her freedom.

"I want to live a normal life like other people, and not live under the control of someone else. With the things I've learned here in the shelter, I think I can stand on my own two feet," she said. (1 US dollar = 0.8012 euro) (Editing by Ros Russell and Belinda Goldsmith)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.