What happens to trafficking survivors who won’t go to the police?

In Spain, the system focuses on criminal prosecutions of traffickers - not on survivors’ human rights. This fails women, and must change.

Gema Fernández
30 July 2019, 4.33pm
Spanish police in Madrid, Spain 2014.
Photo: Flickr/Contando Estrelas. CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Lily arrived in Barcelona from Moldova in 2012, when she was only 23. Soon after, she reportedly told the Spanish police that she was a trafficking victim and requested assistance. But, when they asked her to name her traffickers, she recanted, seemingly afraid that the trafficking network would hurt her children if she gave them up.

Lily never attempted to make another police report. But she never stopped asking for help. For seven years, she explained her situation to anyone who would listen. Organisations, lawyers, social workers, elected officials, even her neighbours knew that Lily was being sexually exploited by traffickers.

But time and again, Lily was told that unless she reported her traffickers to the police, the system could not protect her. In early April 2019, her trafficker beat her so badly she ended up in the hospital. Once there, she was also diagnosed with leukaemia, though she died from those injuries.

Soon after, Laura Pérez, a Barcelona city councillor, with a brief covering international relations, feminisms and LGTBI rights, said that Lily’s death revealed “the gaps in a system that failed to protect her”. They were right. Cases like Lily’s show how not all trafficking victims are protected in Spain. Not all are able to turn in their traffickers, or may be afraid to.

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Lily’s death revealed “the gaps in a system that failed to protect her”

Trafficking networks may threaten to harm children, families, or suspected informants themselves. Some people in these situations have not received information about their rights, or how to access them. They may not self-identify as victims of serious crimes and human rights abuses.

Even if they report their traffickers and cooperate with the police, the system does not eliminate their debts to these networks - or ensure that they can legally remain in Spain. When investigations are over, they may be deported and face retaliation in their home countries, from traffickers, for cooperating with the authorities - or they may be trafficked again.

But the Spanish system is not designed to protect these survivors’ human rights. Instead it is focused on combating trafficking networks.

The police are the only state agency that can officially identify someone as a trafficking victim in Spain. No other organisation, or social worker, has this power - despite their extensive expertise on these issues, and the fact that they often work closely with victims over extended periods of time.

And what happens to people before or after they report their traffickers to the police doesn’t seem to matter to the Spanish police. Their primary focus is to get women to cooperate with criminal investigations, despite the risks this can entail. If victims do not want to, or cannot, cooperate, they fall through the cracks and receive no protection from the system.

This matters because, when victims are not officially identified as such, they may end up facing charges for crimes that trafficking networks force them to commit. Or they may be sent to immigration detention centres and later deported. Or, like Lily, they may end up dead.

The Spanish system is not designed to protect these survivors’ human rights

The only way this situation will change is if the protection system is redesigned with a human rights approach. The first step would be for the Spanish authorities to truly understand what human trafficking is - a complex phenomenon in which victims are not always free to report their traffickers. This, by no means, makes them any less worthy of protection.

Crime prosecution services can work with victims who report crimes. But Spain must provide protection for all survivors, whether or not they cooperate against the networks that targeted them. Only then will people stop becoming victims of a protection system that ignores their rights, preferring to look after its own interests (criminal convictions) instead.

Lily’s was not an isolated case. Rather it is a prime example of how our system is not working and how it can fail women who are in desperate need for support but can’t or won’t ‘collaborate’ with law enforcement.

Despite being aware of her situation as a victim of trafficking, Spanish authorities failed to protect Lily because she did not report her traffickers to the police. Her preventable death is a shocking reminder as to why such burdens cannot be placed on survivors of these crimes. It must teach us this lesson: anti-trafficking action needs to be human-rights centred.

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