It is good that the House Ethics Committee has taken up the weakness of the authorities in combating human trafficking. The committee met on Monday to look at the failings of the system in prosecuting traffickers and asked for the advice of the Legal Service, state services and police in drafting laws that would make it easier for this to happen.
Cyprus was downgraded to Tier 2 in the 2021 annual report of the US State Department on human trafficking, after three years in Tier 1, because of the authorities’ abject failure to secure any convictions from trafficking. There had been a number of prosecutions in the last four years but none of these resulted in convictions.
This was not necessarily the result of the authorities’ unwillingness to put traffickers behind bars. There is any number of reasons that could have contributed to this failure – police inexperience in investigating cases, failings of the prosecution, judges that base their rulings on technicalities rather than the spirit of the law and the long delays in trials. Many prosecution cases have been lost for these reasons, those regarding the collapse of the banking system being a prime example.
There is an additional, key factor preventing convictions. The long court delays lead to victims going abroad and the suspects fleeing the country. In the last four years, there was a total of 10 trafficking cases for which the trial was suspended for different reasons. The State Department in its report expressed concern that the victims were not adequately protected by the authorities which often left them at the mercy of the traffickers.
This task was left to NGOs which offered the victims psychological, legal and material support. NGOs, however, are not in a position to offer the protection the state can provide. Without this protection, victims feel intimidated and frightened and are unlikely to hang around waiting for years for their case to go to trial. They may choose to leave even if they are given protection because court procedures take so long and, understandably, they might want to get on with their lives or return to the safety of their home country.
These problems will not be addressed by introducing tougher laws on trafficking as deputies seem to believe. The intention of the ethics committee is to draft new laws, but what difference would these make if victims are not prepared to wait for years for a case to be heard and have no state protection during that time?
It is a support system that has to be set up by the state for trafficking victims that want to stay here until a trial, but also money should be made available for flying them here for a trial if they choose to return to their country. It is practical steps that ensure trials go ahead that should be taken rather than drafting new laws that will be difficult to enforce.