Yes, slavery still exists in the twenty first century.


Despite official abolitions of slavery during the nineteenth century throughout the actual EU member states and its colonies, in these same states, thousands of individuals are still subject to exploitation nowadays. As such, the notion of modern slavery is commonly used to refer to a wide range of exploitations which violate human rights and dignity. However, it is used as a concept which is not in itself properly defined in the international or European Union law. Legislations rather specify the treatments through which individuals might be exploited under the legal term of human trafficking, or even forced labour, but not as modern slavery or contemporary forms of slavery that we can read in working or academics papers.

This lack of clarity genuinely appears as the starting point of the complexity of this matter. Considering the globalization, opening of borders and technological advances, exploitation of individuals was further facilitated, resulting in its expansion and diversification. Therefore, it has worsened the victims’ condition in the sense that, most of the time, crossing-border and being dissimulated, it became more and more complicated to find them and consider them legally as victims. Beyond that, assistance provided is also questionable, as are citizen’s lack of knowledge on this matter.


Human trafficking has been regulated gradually, equally on the international scene and at the European scale. It might appear understandable that, after the abolition of slavery assimilated to the exploitation of African and later Asian populations in fields, it was hard to believe that new forms of exploitation could take the same ‘title’ regarding the historical dimension of the word slavery. Nonetheless, it became urgent to establish a legal framework to regulate the increasing issue of prostitution and all other conditions close to those back to the nineteenth century. So as other forms which have successively been recognised as human trafficking, such as the exploitation of someone in order to, inter alia, commit drug or organ trafficking; work for labour exploitation in a textile company, agriculture sector or domestic servitude. Even though European institutions tried to adapt to the context of the nineteenth century, enacting more and more legislations related to specific forms of exploitation, this succession of texts seemed to have a counterproductive effect. It blurred the legibility of law, creating a complex legal framework affected by overlaps and gaps. In that sense, the protection of victims was not enough considered so as the importance of raising citizens’ awareness.


On this basis, the European Union’s institutions took the opportunity of this new century to clarify its legislation starting with three main instruments which perpetuated the idea of a sparse legislation overlaid with an insufficient reliability to protect the victims. According to the United Nations’ dynamic with regard to the synthetic Palermo Protocol, the European Parliament and the Council intended to codify the European legislations into the Directive 2011/36/EU on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims. As such, the EU clearly emphasized the importance of the tryptic established by the International law: combatting, protecting and preventing human trafficking. If the Treaty of Lisbon established a crossing-border condition, this Directive described human trafficking as any “recruitment, transportation, (…), by means of the threat or use of force (…) or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” It has therefore genuinely broadened the definition and is even more focused on the victim. As being established by a Directive, the implementation of the priorities mentioned earlier so as this definition became formally required in the EU Member States’ domestic law by 2013. Still, as it took time for the EU to establish a piece of legislation considering the constant mutation of the forms of exploitation, all the Member States did not transpose the Directive right away, notwithstanding the actual need to strengthen the means of national police services, agencies and associations in order to be as efficient as possible. The States’ sovereignty was indeed involved, and they all had their concerns and societal debates to consider in terms of repression. Hence, the long way towards a reliable legal framework in human trafficking did not end with the Directive 2011/36/EU.

The complexity of the human trafficking’s framework may also be noticed through the lapse of time needed to enact a unified regulation, even though its efficiency is still questionable. The situation in the United Kingdom perfectly illustrates how complex it was for the States to follow the European legislation’s evolution and to implement all the requirements. Before establishing clear and synthetic legislations in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had first introduced into the UK a specific procedure dedicated to the identification of the victims. Indeed, some specific pieces of legislations existed with regard to the forms of exploitation in themselves in order to repress traffickers, but in 2009, the National Referral Mechanism made the difference with a real focus put on victims. This showed how victims must come first in terms of human trafficking and, next, the Acts enacted in 2015 demonstrated that it is crucial to repress those inhuman treatments so that it does not affect more victims. However, some differences in the definitions of some forms of exploitation such as in sexual exploitation as to what is actually reprehensible (clients, victims for being in the street) arose from the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Moreover, some confusions arose in relation to the immigration law given the number of victims being foreign citizens. Some concerns also emerged regarding standards of victims arising from the identification process. As a result, those critical points tend to demonstrate the limits of the current framework despite all the time it took for it to be thought and enforced in practice. Therefore, it is still blurred: this explains why it is hard for citizens to have a clear understanding and vision of what the concept of modern slavery includes and how they might contribute to the report of wrongful acts.


If the measures put in place are carefully considered and determined by the States, the UK is an example of how hard it is for the States to establish their proper application. This justifies the large involvement of associations helping victims and raising awareness as well as the European Parliament regularly urging the need to train professionals who might come in direct contact with victims of human trafficking.   


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