Europol and the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Owain Johnstone - 29th July 2014

On Tuesday 24th June the Human Trafficking Discussion Group (under the umbrella of the Oxford Migration Studies Society) was delighted to host a talk by Sergio D’Orsi of Europol, speaking about that organisation’s important work on human trafficking.

Sergio spoke engagingly about both Europol’s general institutional role and capacities and its specific focus on human trafficking within the organisation’s broader mandate.

If you are not familiar with Europol’s work, it can best be described as a coordination and liaison mechanism for European police forces – and also a mechanism for liaising with non-European forces when necessary. While Europol itself does not possess any executive powers, it can help to support and coordinate policing activity by Member States whenever this involves cross-border crime of some kind. As such, Europol is a key body when it comes to creating a coordinated and effective European policing response to cross-border threats. It offers a means of communication between different countries’ operatives as well as a large intelligence database.

A large part of Europol’s mandate focuses on organised crime, within which is situated its human trafficking team, of which Sergio is a part. That team has an important role to play given the increasingly prevalent problem of human trafficking in Europe. They are also a source of expertise on trafficking, able as they are to draw on and collate experience and intelligence from across Europe and elsewhere. Sergio noted a number of contemporary trends in trafficking drawn from this knowledge, including an increase in levels of intra-European human trafficking, the growing flexibility of organised criminal groups to react to novel laws and enforcement mechanisms, and an increased demand for illegal labour following the economic crisis. In other words, trafficking is a growing problem – in Europe as much as anywhere.

One of the aspects of Sergio’s talk that particularly stood out was his emphasis on the variability of human trafficking. Criminal groups can be small or large, routes are rarely constant (in contrast to people smuggling) and business models can be sophisticated and rapidly changing – the internet has become a particularly significant influence on trafficking activity, permitting traffickers to advertise, communicate, transfer money and take ‘bookings’ for anything from escort services to prostitution, and all with relative anonymity.

Yet despite this flexibility and variability, Sergio also emphasised the need to remember that traffickers and their victims are often of the same nationality and even come from the same local communities. One implication of this is that victims might find themselves abroad (in the UK, for example), where the only people who speak their language are their traffickers. A related finding is that organised criminal groups engaged in trafficking often have close links with immigrant communities in destination countries.

The overall impression that Sergio left us with was of human trafficking as a business – and like many businesses it is made up of a wide variety of actors and often linked to local contexts. He also noted the consequent importance of the bottom line, meaning that from an enforcement perspective it becomes even more important to address the financial aspects of trafficking.

Human trafficking, then, is a complex, multifaceted and rapidly evolving phenomenon, which makes the role of a coordinating and intelligence sharing body like Europol particularly crucial. If we are to tackle trafficking we must get to grips with its complexity and recognise that no country is able to address the issue alone.

Author profile

Owain Johnstone is a DPhil candidate at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. His research investigates how understandings of human trafficking by various interested actors within the UK (including policy-makers, lawyers, NGOs, journalists and others) have emerged, evolved and interacted and what implications those understandings have for how the Government and others go about trying to combat human trafficking.


Owain Johnstone, “Europol and the Fight Against Human Trafficking,” (OxHRH Blog, 29 July 2014) <> [date of access].

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