Trafficking in persons and corruption: A symbiotic relationship
Trafficking in persons could not occur at the large scale that it currently does without the leverage supplied by corruption. This chapter explores this link between trafficking in persons and corruption, focusing on who the corrupt actors are, the types of corrupt acts they commit, and where in the trafficking chain corruption takes place.
Corruption facilitates the illegal economy just as transparency and the rule of law enable legal markets. Organised trafficking simply cannot take place without corruption. It has been argued that trafficking in persons would not be as prevalent and widespread if it were not for the leverage supplied by corruption (Tremblay, 2010). Similarly, it has been noted that human trafficking could not occur on the scale it does if it were not for the complicity and collusion of corrupt officials with criminal gangs (Holmes, 2009).
The aim of corruption in the trafficking in persons cycle is said to have four main goals (IACC, 2010):
- 1. to allow the crime to be invisible
- 2. to facilitate the impunity once a case of trafficking in persons is detected
- 3. to facilitate the execution of the crime
- 4. to assure the re-victimisation of the trafficked victims.
Corrupt law enforcement agents facilitate the recruitment, transportation and exploitation of trafficking victims, and corrupt criminal justice authorities can help traffickers by obstructing investigations and prosecutions of cases as well as hinder the protection of victims of trafficking. Corrupt officials play an important role in the different stages of the trafficking-in-persons supply chain. Obtaining fraudulent invitations or forged documents may be facilitated by corrupt officials at the recruitment stage. At the transportation stage, officials may turn a blind eye and ignore victims of trafficking - allowing them to cross borders - in exchange for bribes. At the exploitation phase, they may practice extortion (UNODC, 2008). Corruption involving the private sector - for example overseas employment agencies, travel agencies, model agencies, marriage bureaus, and hotels - may also contribute to trafficking in persons (UNODC, 2011).
Since corruption is central to the success of traffickers, corruption becomes a necessary investment for criminals. Studies suggest that corruption is one of the most important cost factors for traffickers (PACO, 2002). Corruption allows for the massive enrichment of traffickers and helps to lure individuals from the public and private sector into trafficking networks - either by joining the networks or facilitating their operations.
Countries that make the least effort to fight trafficking in persons are also those who tend to have high levels of perceived corruption. Figure 2.1 compares the categorisation of countries in the US Trafficking in Persons 2014 report to the ranking of countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index. Countries with the highest perception of corruption are found in the category “Tier 3”, which represents countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards set out in the US “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” and are not making significant efforts to do so.
Figure 2.1. Countries that make the least effort to fight trafficking in persons are also those who tend to have
high levels of perceived corruption
Tier 1: Countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.
Tier 2: Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Tier 2 Watch List: Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards and:
- a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing.
- b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous
c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was
based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.
Tier 3: Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.
Source: Author’s own calculations, based on information from Transparency International (2014), Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, Transparency International, Berlin, http://files.transparencv.org/content/download/1856/12434/file/2014 CPIBrochure EN.pdf;
US Department of State (2014), Trafficking in Persons Report June 2014, US Department of State, Washington, DC.
Moreover, there is a significant relationship between perceived levels of corruption and trafficking in persons. Traffickers may use high levels of perceived corruption to their advantage in the recruitment of victims, and to control them (UNODC, 2011). Victims who perceive corruption to be high are less likely to doubt a trafficker who claims middle men are required to obtain a visa, passport or other travel documents (UNODC, 2011). Similarly, a high level of perceived corruption in the victim’s home country is also a powerful tool used by traffickers to control their victims in countries of destination. Traffickers often threaten victims that attempt to escape will be useless as corrupt police would bring them back to their exploiters. If victims have experienced corruption or have a perception of high levels of corruption in their home countries, they are more likely to believe these statements (UNODC, 2011).
When in the trafficking chain does corruption take place? Who are the corrupt actors? What are the corrupt acts?
Several studies have identified opportunities for corruption at various stages in the trafficking chain, who the potentially corrupt actors are, and what corrupt acts they commonly perform. Corrupt behaviour in the trafficking chain ranges from active involvement (such as violating duties, accepting or transferring bribes, and facilitating transactions), to passive involvement (such as ignoring or failing to follow up on information that a crime may be taking place).
The Council of Europe provides a general overview of professionals at risk of corruption. They range from public officials such as police, customs, consular and embassy officers, to border control, immigration services, other law enforcement agencies, local officials, intelligence/security forces and armed forces (national or international) to persons/groups/parties with “influence”. The private sector actors include workers within travel agencies, airlines, the transportation sector, financial institutions, and banks (PACO, 2002). Risk is reported to be particularly widespread among police (Box 2.1).
Box 2.1. Cases of corruption identified by the Council of Europe among police
The Council of Europe has identified a number of recurring problems of corruption among police.
Police departments in charge of registering foreign citizens are believed to sometimes accept bribes to issue work and residence permits for foreign “dancers”. Corrupt officials may issue identity documents as well as visas. This sometimes also involves corrupt staff of “western” embassies. Corruption at border crossings may also lead to the provision of entry visas and residence and work permits, or entry without control of travel documents. Corruption also involves the private sector, in particular travel agencies.
Police departments may collaborate with traffickers to put victims who have been arrested or are under protection back on the streets so that they can be re-trafficked or are prevented from giving testimony, or deport victims before they can give a testimony. There are reports of victims who return home that are re-trafficked immediately with the help of corrupt law enforcement officers or on the basis of information provided to traffickers by officers.
International police and armed forces may not only be customers, but there are cases where they are allegedly involved in trafficking and sexual exploitation. However, immunity prevents them from being prosecuted.
Local police as well as political authorities allegedly provide protection to business owners who use trafficked persons as forced labour in exchange for money or sexual services. There are instances where police officers earn supplementary income as security guards in clubs, bars and other establishments. This position enables them to inform business owners before raids and provide advance notice of planned police raids.
Source: PACO (2002), “Trafficking in human beings and corruption”, Council of Europe, Report on the Regional Seminar, Portoroz, Slovenia, 19-22 June, p. 10 and p. 28.
Similarly to the Council of Europe, UNODC (2011) has identified a number of areas where corruption in the public sector furthers trafficking in persons:
- • Traffickers may recruit, transport and exploit their victims with the help of corrupt public officials.
- • Lack of investigation, prosecution and adjudication of trafficking in persons due to corrupt criminal justice officials.
- • Lack of information and data collection on, as well as reporting of, trafficking-in- persons-related corruption.
- • Protection of victims of trafficking impeded by corrupt public officials (and/or civil society actors).
- • Lack of adequate responses to root causes of trafficking in persons.
- • Lack of adequate response against major impediments to adequate criminal justice response.
In addition to these overarching challenges and problems, the Council of Europe and UNODC have identified and divided the key risks of corruption into three different stages of the trafficking cycle: the trafficking chain, the criminal justice chain and the victims support and protection stage (Table 2.1).
Transparency International (2011) has identified opportunities for corruption in the recruitment, transportation and exploitation phases of trafficking. According to Transparency International, corruption in the recruitment phase most likely takes the form of buying the silence of government bodies with responsibility for protecting society from recruitment for trafficking actions. In the transportation phase, corruption is most likely (and profitable) during border crossings. Border crossings provide the entry point for the involvement of additional actors, such as law enforcement bodies and other public officials. In the exploitation phase of trafficking, traffickers commonly rely on networks of trusted hotel owners or lessors of lodging. Often, these owners pay bribes or are offered bribes to allow trafficking to take place on the premises unchecked by law enforcement agencies. If raids or arrest happens, bribes may be paid to the police, prosecutors or judges in return for compromising the integrity of a successful investigation or prosecution of traffickers.
Table 2.1. When, who and what identified by UNODC and the Council of Europe
in the trafficking chains
Trafficking in persons chain
Criminal justice chain
Protection and support of victims
The trafficking chain consists of the recruitment of victims, the provision of documentation (identity papers, visas, permits), the transport of victims, which may include border-crossing, their exploitation, as well as the laundering of the proceeds of the crime.
The criminal justice chain ranges from the drafting and adoption of legislation, to crime prevention measures, preliminary investigations and investigations into specific offences, the search and seizure of proceeds, prosecution, trial and verdict, confiscation of proceeds, and enforcement of sanctions.
This protection and support of victims stage includes the provision of support, protection and shelter to victims of trafficking in persons.
Corrupt actors within this chain of activities may include police, customs officers, visa officers or embassy staff, border control authorities, immigration services, other law enforcement agencies, intelligence/security services, armed forces (national or international), local officials, persons/groups/parties with influence on public officials, as well as private sector actors, such as travel agencies, airlines, transportation sector, financial institutions, and banks.
Corrupt actors may include parliamentarians, government officials, police, customs border control, immigration services and other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, investigative judges, intelligence/security forces, local officials, as well as persons/groups, parties with influence on public officials.
Actors involved may include nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations, as well as public social service institutions.
Corrupt acts may range from passivity (ignoring or tolerating trafficking), or actively participating in or even organising trafficking in human beings, that is, from a violation of duties, to corruption or organised crime.
Acts pointing to corruption or organised crime, or at least to a violation of duties, may range from passivity (ignoring, tolerating, avoiding action) to an active obstruction of investigations, prosecution and judicial proceedings, the revealing and selling of information, and the perverting of the course of justice. Lack of awareness, capacities and skills may cause such behaviour, which may range from mere violation of duties to corruption and involvement in organised crime.
Corrupt behaviour may range from passivity and “trade-offs” (passivity in order not to compromise access to victims or co-operation with official institutions), to revealing or selling information on victims, betraying victims, or that an organisation is infiltrated by traffickers.
Source: UNODC (2011), The Role of Corruption in Trafficking in Persons, United Nations, Vienna, p. 7.
Holmes, L. (2009), “Human trafficking and corruption: Triple victimization?”, in C. Friesendorf (ed.), Strategies Against Human Trafficking: The Role of the Security Sector, National Defence Academy and Austrian Ministry of Defence and Sports, Vienna, pp. 83-114.
IACC (International Anti-Corruption Conference) (2010), “WS#7 Corruption and Human Trafficking: Unraveling the Undistinguishable for a Better Fight”, long workshop report, 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference 2010, Bangkok, Thailand,
PACO (Programme Against Corruption and Organised Crime in South-Eastern Europe) (2002), “Trafficking in human beings and corruption”, Council of Europe, Report on the Regional Seminar, Portoroz, Slovenia, 19-22 June.
Transparency International (2014), Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, Transparency International, Berlin, http://files.transparencv.org/content/download/1856/12434/file/ 2014 CPIBrochure EN.pdf.
Transparency International (2011), “Corruption and human trafficking”, Working Paper 03/2011, Transparency International, Berlin.
Tremblay, M. (2010), “Corruption and Human Trafficking: Unraveling the Undistinguishable for a Better Fight”, IACC 2010 workshop report, International Anti-Corruption Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, 10-13 November.
UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) (2011), The Role of Corruption in Trafficking in Persons, United Nations, Vienna.
UNODC (2008), Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons, United Nations, New York, www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/Toolkit-files/07-89375 EbookHl.pdf.
US Department of State (2014), Trafficking in Persons Report June 2014, US Department of State, Washington, DC.