Devil's bargain

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Victims of human trafficking are sometimes placed in a devil's dilemma in the Netherlands. They either have to cooperate with the judiciary in identifying and prosecuting their handlers, or face deportation back to their home country.

Somewhere in West Africa, a teenage girl loses both parents. She has to fend for herself, but it goes badly. A man who promised to help locks her up and uses her as a sex slave. Then he says he will rescue her, and give her the chance to start a new life in the Netherlands. She doesn't know what a passport is, or what the Netherlands is.
Once the girl gets here, she's locked up again and abused - until she manages to escape. The police find her walking on the street, confused and scared. They take her to a centre where asylum seekers are processed, and she agrees to bring charges against the man who 'rescued' her.
Valerie Essenburg is this girl's lawyer. She agreed to tell the girl's story on the condition that her identity remains protected. Ms Essenburg herself does not know where her client is living.
"He helped her to get out of the country, but he kept her for himself. He locked her up in a house, both in Africa and in the Netherlands. And he had some plans for her. She said 'I had to meet other men. I didn't want to but I didn't have any choice, that's how it started.'"
Hundreds of victims
This girl was the victim of people smugglers. Dutch authorities discover around 200 people every year who were trafficked and brought here against their will to work as prostitutes or forced labour. But the real number could be much higher. Few victims come forward on their own. Plus, once in Europe, victims are often moved from country to country, in part to evade authorities.
The girl from West Africa was lucky to escape her captor and get picked up by the police. She's living in a shelter and going to school. Her identity is strictly protected.
But she's likely to get sent back to her home country. Victims of people smuggling get a temporary residency visa only if they agree to cooperate in prosecuting their traffickers. If the case does not go forward, the visa is not renewed. Victims of human trafficking often do not know enough about their captors to bring a case to court.
Adriana van Dooijeweert is the director of the Advisory Committee on Migration Affairs. The committee recently recommended some changes in how the government handles victims of human trafficking.
"The problem is that a lot of victims do not lodge complaints because they're afraid of the traffickers who sometimes threaten to do things to people in the countries where they come from. You find them in very bad situations. They're frightened and they're traumatised."
Victims should get a little more time to rest and to think about whether they want to complain, Ms Van Dooijeweert says. The main problem is that, under current Dutch policy, they get a permit to stay here, but only when they lodge a complaint, when they help the police to convict the traffickers.
Open borders
Deputy Justice Minister Nabahat Albayrak doesn't plan to change the requirement that victims only get a visa if they agree to cooperate. She says there is little the Netherlands can do on its own. The answer, she says, lies in a coordinated international approach, given that European countries have open borders.
"Having open borders, obviously a lot of people are smuggled to the Netherlands for various reasons. We know that it's going on in the asylum procedures, we also know that being a country with no external borders, and being a member of the EU means that people who are being trafficked to be exploited can enter the country."
Ms Albayrak is making sure the police and other government employees who may come into contact with victims know how to recognize them. An education team is touring the country in what the deputy justice minister calls a 'people smuggling roadshow'. In addition, the government is set to open a new, experimental shelter, with places for fifty people.
But none of this answers the main criticism of Dutch government policy: victims get a visa in exchange for a prosecution.
Blond, blue eyes
The African girl only knew a first name of her captor, and described him as blond, with blue eyes. She did not know the address where she was held. She did not even know what part of the country she was in. So even though she decided to cooperate, her case did not come to court, and she is not eligible for a permanent residency visa.
Her lawyer is trying to get her asylum here in the Netherlands. But being a victim of people smuggling is not in itself a criteria for asylum. Her asylum application is pending.