Human trafficking can also involve Czechs exploited in Czech Republic, says head of NGO La Strada

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A report on human trafficking released last week by the US State Department called on the Czech Republic to do more to increase the number of convicted trafficking offenders serving time in prison. It also praised Prague’s efforts to protect and assist victims. But the Czech branch of the NGO La Strada, which works in this field, questions aspects of Washington’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. La Strada’s director Irena Konečná says, for instance that it makes the mistake of conflating trafficking and pimping.

Irena Konečná
Konečná also points out that this horrific business does not just involve women forced into prostitution: today almost half of her organisation’s clients are men who end up working as virtual slaves. Nevertheless, when we met this week at La Strada’s offices in Prague, I asked her to discuss the cross border sale of women in the context of the Czech Republic.

“The Czech Republic is a transit country, a country of destination and a country of origin. So we have Czech women who have been trafficked into western Europe: the UK, Germany, Switzerland.

“But also we have women who have been trafficked to the Czech Republic, from Russia, Ukraine, or other, third countries.”

I noticed in the report that they said there were some Czech women who were in forced prostitution in this country. Is that the case? I would imagine it would be harder to hold somebody in those conditions in their own country.

“I would say that that isn’t true, because human trafficking does not have to be trans-national organised crime. Currently, according to international documents like the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking.

“Or even a framework decision of the EU says that the crime doesn’t need to be trans-national and organised. There can be cases where they can be within [their own] country, and where for example it is not so perfectly organised.”

And does that happen here? Are there Czech women in forced prostitution in this country?

“Yes.”

Would you say there are many?

“Actually that question is challenging, because on one hand what we know from the municipal police of the city of Prague is that they’ve noticed that during the financial crisis especially the night clubs [brothels] who employed sex workers didn’t need to force someone into prostitution, because there were plenty of girls waiting for a vacancy.

“This is the interpretation of the municipal police – that the financial crisis also affected this industry. Therefore I would say that in some cases there is no need to force the lady or the girl to provide sexual services, because there are many who are willing to do it voluntarily.”

A lot of people around Europe know Prague as a city that men can come to and quite easily go to brothels. For example off the top of Wenceslas Square there is one street with many of them. Say on that street, Ve Smečkách, would the women in those brothels be voluntary prostitutes, or would some of them be forced?

“I would say they would probably be voluntary, because as I said before there are not so many vacancies for these positions, providing sexual services, but there are many girls who are willing to do it voluntarily.”

Where do the women who are trafficked from the Czech Republic tend to end up?

“I cannot say that there is some general trend, that Czech women are mostly trafficked to some specific country. Usually we have one case of a Czech women being trafficked into Denmark, one case in Switzerland, one case in Germany. So how can we create statistics or some trends, based on these numbers?”

The women who do end up in this situation, are they typically from a particular background? Or part of the Czech Republic, geographically?

“This is also hard to say, because in the 15 years that La Strada has been working on this issue, we’ve had clients who had university degrees, as well as clients who had special needs.

“So it’s really difficult to qualify, but the trend of the last few years is that there are more people with special needs who appear in our services who have been exploited, either sexually or as forced labour.”

Is it harder to act against trafficking through the Czech Republic than against the exploitation of people in the Czech Republic?

“Actually it is hard to say. If they are just transitting, you cannot prove that it is human trafficking if they are in the process of transit and there was no coercion, no exploitation. It can be hard to identify, for example for the foreigners’ police, that that person is actually a trafficked person.

“But then if a person is exploited here in the Czech Republic it is the responsibility of the Czech police to investigate that crime.

“If a Czech person is trafficked into for example Great Britain, which we have had several cases of, then its about international co-operation between the Czech police and the UK police. And of course the EU tries to establish joint investigations into cases.

“So of course I would say that if it’s within the country it’s…I cannot say easier, because every case is so complicated…And we face the situation where people who are trafficked cannot access justice, because they are actually trafficked but then it’s very hard to bring evidence that it is actually a trafficking case.

“And if the case is convicted as a case of restriction of personal freedom the consequences for the victim is that they cannot have the same access to justice as a person who has been identified as a trafficked person.”

Last year the Czech state provided over USD 400,000 for anti-trafficking programmes, including over USD 200,000 for victim assistance. What form does that assistance take?

“It’s prevention campaigns, but also awareness raising. Also in recent years I would say the NGOs who were funded by the government focused more on vulnerable communities, or migrant communities from third countries.

“Of course the social services of NGOs are also partly funded by the government, because NGOs like La Strada provide sheltered accommodation, mostly with undisclosed addresses, and crisis help, legal services. We are trying to provide complex services for trafficked persons.”

What typically happens to these people once their cases are uncovered? Do they go home?

“If they were identified as trafficked, yes. It’s up to them. If they want, they usually have a two month-month reflection period when they can decide whether or not to co-operate with the law enforcement authorities.

“Unfortunately, what in our eyes is quite a critical moment is that for example people from third countries, if they decide not to co-operate with law enforcement authorities then they are forced to return. Because the authorities will not prolong their residence permit.

“So some services are on the condition of that the person will co-operate with the law enforcement authorities. And as for as we know, in some cases its organised crime, or trans-national organised crime, people are afraid to co-operate. Of course they are, something could happen to them.

“But if they don’t co-operate, they cannot access justice, compensation, or at least basic services. From our point of view this is quite a critical moment – that some services are based on the condition that people will co-operate with the law enforcement authorities.”