The policy framework for combating human trafficking and protecting victims in Denmark does not match the reality faced by the majority of the migrant women arriving in the country. Especially in relation to women from African countries, the national legislation and regulations can be a source of frustration for agencies such as Reden International – where I work – which helps foreign women working in prostitution in Denmark, particularly victims of trafficking.
There are different groups of migrant women selling sex in Denmark. Many come from Thailand or Eastern Europe, but the majority of the women we meet are from Nigeria. Nigerian women finance their hazardous journey from their home country by taking out loans, often from people in Europe or in Nigeria who promise good earnings. The loan finances their journey and counterfeit documents, and might even secure them a job if they are fortunate enough to make it across European borders.
Some of these migration stories include elements which align with the UN definition of trafficking, such as transportation, debt and deceit. However, others challenge the general understanding of human trafficking on which Danish legislation and interventions are based in one significant aspect. Most of the time, the women have chosen to travel to Europe in the hope of a better life: a hope that is sometimes shattered.
When we at Reden International meet newly arrived Nigerian women, they often still believe that they will be able to pay off their debt and send money back home. After a while, the enormous pressure and harsh working conditions become clear. Many of the women have been cheated. They have been threatened and experienced violence while working in the streets. They are under stress because of their low earnings and the high cost of living in Denmark. If they do not make enough money, some begin to receive threats, at times with possible repercussions for their families back in Nigeria as well. We have heard examples of family houses being burnt down or family members being kidnapped. Many of them are also suffering from the effects of life as undocumented migrant women in rough, street-based environments where they are subject to exploitation, violence and rape.
Women come anonymously to our night-time café, Natcafé, situated in a central location of the red-light district in Copenhagen, where we offer support and advice while they take a much-needed break. Adding to the stress of having to earn enough money to pay off their debts, the women also describe a constant fear of being caught by the police. Consequently, they do not seek help from the police or other authorities when they experience violent episodes. They do not trust the authorities and are afraid of being deported from Denmark as irregular migrants.
Whether or not they have the right papers, these women have a right to protection.
As a consequence, the women instead come to us. The workers at Natcafé have cleaned cigarette burns from women’s bodies as well as other types of injuries, and offered what support they can in the face of physical and other types of abuse. We have asked them to describe the perpetrators in order to warn other women and to inform the police. However, the women’s reluctance to engage with law enforcement means that the people behind these criminal acts are very rarely reported. We find it unacceptable that these criminals effectively receive a free pass to expose these women to violence. Irrespective of whether or not they have the right papers, these women have a right to protection. They should be able to report perpetrators without fearing deportation.
A policy of return above all else
The political response to migration in Denmark has increasingly focused on returning migrants to where they came from as soon as possible. In practice, the policies for victims of human trafficking follow the same approach, even though these people are extremely vulnerable and under great pressure, with very little ability to do anything about their situation. This policy makes it hard to help the women.
Most commonly, the Danish authorities encounter migrant women through police raids on the streets or in apartments. After the women are taken in custody, a brief interview determines whether they qualify as trafficking victims or not. Despite international criticism, Denmark does not allow victims of human trafficking to remain in the country. Instead, they are granted a 30-day ‘reflection period’ to decide whether they will cooperate with the repatriation. During this period they live at a shelter. If the women cooperate, the reflection period may be extended to three months. After three months, they are required to return to their home country.
We should not be blind to the fact that these women need to earn money.
A longer reflection period of at least six months would make it possible to develop a relationship of trust with women in the shelters, to find out what they think about their situations, who has exploited them and how, and what they need in order to lead sustainable lives in their home countries. It would also make it more feasible to discuss their potential involvement in the investigation and in criminal proceedings against their traffickers. However, the provision of a reflection period and support should not depend on victims’ cooperation with the criminal investigation, as is currently the case. The Danish government has an obligation to protect victims of crime and not simply use them for the purpose of solving the crime.
We should not be blind to the fact that these women need to earn money. Offers for help are often refused because they have to earn money for their families back home and to repay their debt to the financiers or traffickers. They have no chance of this as things stand today. If they were allowed to earn money from day one of the reflection period, it is certain that more women would accept assistance and counselling.
More targeted interventions are also needed. Research shows that focusing on sustainable repatriation for those who actually want to return home is a much more valuable strategy than forced returns. Trafficked women who return voluntarily will be much more engaged in seeking a good life in their home country. Also, those who manage best in life after trafficking are those with good networks to return to. However, Danish anti-trafficking policy and the broader political climate on migration in the EU do not allow for individual focus.
Our point of departure is that everyone should be assisted and treated decently, irrespective of their residency status and trafficking story. Everyone should be able to go to hospital when they are ill and to the police if they have been subjected to violence or rape. We believe that in Denmark and across Europe, there is a need for a different, more realistic, and more humanitarian perspective. A perspective appropriate to current migration patterns and which takes into account women’s reality. Initiatives must focus on the individual and consider the situation in which they find themselves. We believe these initiatives should include provision of longer reflection and recover periods, the possibility to earn money, better access to authorities, and collaborations between victims and authorities built on trust and a prioritised concern for victim protection over criminal prosecution. This is vital if the government truly wants to reach and help a larger group of these extremely exposed and vulnerable victims of severe exploitation or human trafficking.
This piece was originally published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 10.