The Economics of Human Trafficking in Europe

By Becci Fobbe

It is the year 2015, and Europe is struggling with stagnating economic growth rates, a general decline in the game for global power balance, and with several crisis in regard to external affairs. However, there is one business that is booming, with no boundaries: the trade of human beings.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines ‘Trafficking in Persons’ as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”. Exploitation includes, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or, the removal of organs.

One would assume that modern Europe, who plays a big part in the establishment and implementation of human rights and morals all over the world, would know that human trafficking, simply put, is nothing else than modern day slavery. But as so often in a capitalistic society, growth rates and profit count more than human dignity and fair play.

If looked at from a purely economic perspective, the business of human trafficking is a fruitful and lucrative one. The growth market ‘human beings’ establishes a foundation to all those who were smart enough to enter the business: 30 billion dollars are made annually worldwide. Around half of those profits are made in Europe, and include forced prostitution, trafficking of children, women and men, illegal organ trade, the trade of modern house slaves and arranged fictitious marriages. In European society only drug smuggling is a more profitable business.

Of course, the police and international organizations estimate most of these numbers, since most of the business is part of the ‘dark area’, the black market. Police and border control have neither influence nor effective means of enforcement yet to limit the extent of the business.

But what is it that makes this business to fruitful? Most of all, it is the resource that it is dealing with. Human beings are a sustainable resource; they can be ‘recycled’, or, traded again and again. Drugs, for a comparison, can only be used once. Additionally, due to the high demand in Europe, those who invest in the business must take little risks. Like in other well-known illegal businesses, only the peripheral individuals at the end of the trading chain risk their lives, whereas the people pulling all threads mostly stay undetected by the authorities.

Estimated numbers of how much one pimp earns from a single trafficked girl who is then forced into prostitution amount up to $67,000. It only makes sense that the most common form (79%) of human trafficking is sexual exploitation. It is not surprising that most victims are girl and young women, but it is more surprising that according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes most traffickers in this field are women as well. Often, they have been trafficked themselves once and are then forced into this managerial position. A new film named Eden addresses one such story.

But not only the resource and low risk make the business lucrative. Equally important is the high demand, especially in Europe: Western European countries are leading the worldwide import of trafficked humans. The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain all rank high on tables displaying the percentages of men that paid for sex at least once. In Germany alone 1.2 million Germans are said to use the services of prostitutes daily which leads to revenues of 6 billion euros annually – those numbers are comparable to Porsche or Adidas.

Another reason that leads to a boom of the trade is the ineffective reaction from both local and international authorities. There are little measurements taken to prevent the trafficking. Even though international cooperation between bordering countries grows stronger and international reports are published more frequently and with more detailed content, effective enforcement and drastic actions are lacking.

One is left to wonder what policy changes have to be made. Is it only our failing/denying governments that must take responsibility? Is it the legalization of prostitution and the establishment of organ donor themselves that are ruining the lives of so many individuals, which are involuntarily integrated in the system? Is it the declining economy that pushes people into the informal and mostly illegal sector to survive? Or is it just a few of those Big Fish, which are left to do whatever pleases them due to corruption? Answer are yet to be found.

There is one perspective however, that makes all of these questions rather insignificant. How is it possible that ‘educated and post-modern’ Europe is disregarding its own modern slave trade? Ghandi told us to be the change we want to see in the world. Europe must start at its own front door with implementing human rights, and therefor actively fighting any kind of human trafficking.

Slave trade was an unfair and dreadful, yet legal and public part of business at its time. Modern day slave trade is still unfair and dreadful. Fortunately, it is already made illegal. But the fact that human trafficking is still happening, every day, hidden from the public eyes, in a society that is historically meant to sing a different song, must make us re-evaluate Europe’s position and moral high-grounds.


Becci Fobbe, Class of 2016, Politics and Law, Büdingen (Germany)

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