Waking up to Human Trafficking in Iceland

01.03.2009 | 11:00

A woman suspected of human trafficking was arrested in Iceland this week. Stories of arrests of this sort, anywhere, and even more so in Iceland, are seldom heard.

Some thought that this small nation was immune to such crimes, but this week’s arrest is further suggestion that human trafficking does indeed exist in Iceland.

A multi-billion dollar operation, trafficking is one of the largest global industries and has the potential to exist anywhere. So if trafficking can flourish elsewhere, like in the United States, where 50 child prostitutes?some as young as 13?were rescued earlier this week, in other developed as well as developing countries, western and eastern countries, in democracies and autocracies, then there is no doubt that it can exist in Iceland.

The woman arrested in Iceland earlier this week is also suspected of having organized prostitution in Iceland and profited from it (as a third party), which under Icelandic law is illegal. Soliciting sex and the buying of sexual services are, however, not.

This means that the men who use trafficked women cannot, for the moment, be prosecuted. However, as I understand it, the laws relating to the buying of sex are currently being reviewed.

The UN defines human trafficking as the acquisition, recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring of people by means such as force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting them?including for sex.

Iceland is a signatory of the UN convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

In June of last year, the Icelandic government began to prepare a plan of action, which is set to be published in coming weeks, on how to respond to human trafficking, partly because local laws did not include clauses on how to protect the victims.

The taskforce used a prototype of a strategy implemented in Norway in 2003, when human trafficking was unknown there. More than 200 possible cases of human trafficking have since been discovered.

There have been warnings and indications that trafficking existed in Iceland before. One such warning came from Birgitte Elfsen, program manager of the operation plan in Norway, who said last year that since the problem existed in Norway it was also possible that it existed here.

In 2003, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance criticized Iceland over suspicion that some women had been brought to Iceland under false pretenses and then coerced to work as strip dancers or prostitutes.

Last year, the Icelandic police published records of between 15 and 20 victims of human trafficking. However, it has proven difficult to obtain information about those responsible, let alone charge them, while at the same time guaranteeing the safety of the victims.

In an interview with Gudrún Jónsdóttir, the spokesperson for Stígamót, the Icelandic Counseling and Information Center for Survivors of Sexual Violence, she said that cases of human trafficking in Iceland were documented as far back as 2000, yet those responsible have neither been convicted nor prosecuted.

Margrét Steinarsdóttir, a lawyer at Ahús, the Intercultural Center in Reykjavík, who has assisted victims of human trafficking, said in an interview with Fréttabladid last year that in some cases, victims may come to Iceland on their own accord and agree to marriage to obtain a residence permit, but once they are here they are deprived of their freedom and their passports are often confiscated.

It may be hard for some to imagine how this can happen in such a small community, or comprehend how someone could be tricked, forced or coerced into such a situation, but it’s time to accept that it does.

The reality is that Iceland is not the sheltered paradise that some seem to think it is. It’s easy to judge people who end up in prostitution and even trafficking.

Even I admit that I sometimes find it difficult to understand how women can be duped into offers of work as waitresses or nannies that they later find out don’t exist. Or how they could consider it normal to be told to hand over their passport to their boss.

But, the fact is that the victims are often targeted because they are already vulnerable and are unlikely to be aware of the laws and help available.

The woman who was arrested at Keflavík Airport earlier this week is suspected of having operated brothels in and around Reykjavík. When a television reporter turned up at her door several weeks ago, when the story broke, she commented that the women working there were simply “entertaining men” and defended their work.

The UN’s first global report on human trafficking, which was released earlier this month, found that women are the biggest traffickers of other women and girls for the international sex trade in almost a third of countries that keep such statistics. It’s bad enough that men are willing to exploit women in this way, but it’s beyond sickening that women are willing to do it to each other.

One can argue that it is just entertainment, but the question of whether prostitution should or shouldn’t be legal aside, one thing is for sure. Those who are forced, coerced or tricked into prostitution do not see it is as fun or entertaining.

People can continue to pretend that prostitution, and especially human trafficking, doesn’t exist in their backyard. But it does and it must be acknowledged to be taken seriously. Another thing is for sure: There wouldn’t be any trafficking without demand.

Zoë Robert – zoe_robert3@hotmail.com

Link to original at Iceland Review

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