A recent research suggested that Spain is the second highest country to have the largest number of victims of human trafficking in Europe. The relative affluence of Spain in comparison to its neighbouring countries makes it an attractive destination for migrants, and a flourishing base for human trafficking. Proyecto Esperanza in Spain discusses its effort to provide assistance to victims of trafficking and their advocacy effort to strengthen the anti-trafficking mechanism that ensures protection of rights of the victims in Spain.

Can you tell us briefly about Proyecto Esperanza’s program on anti-trafficking?

Proyecto Esperanza was founded in 1999 with a group of volunteers along with Congregation of Sisters Adorers. Since then it has grown into a multi-disciplinary team of professionals such as lawyers, educators, cultural mediators and psychologists. We understand human trafficking as a violation of human rights.

Proyecto Esperanza has a two-pronged approach to carry out its work - Direct Assistance and Advocacy and Outreach.

Direct Assistance is the core work of PE. It is based on what we call a Personal Project. We work together with each woman that comes to us to detect their individual needs and strengths, to understand their short term and long term goals. We work with her to identify what strengths she has and in what areas she may need support. Based on this assessment, with her participation, we create a plan of action to reach her goals and work with the other professionals both within PE and outside. Through the different departments at PE, we offer legal support, employment training and language classes, psychological support as well as facilitate access to the national health system and public integration programs. We do not take a cookie cutter approach to this process but instead it entirely depends on each individual and the reflection of her specific needs. Our motto is that each woman is the most important actor in her life. The women are the main actors in our Project and the work we do.  We try to empower them and support them in relying on their strengths to reach their goal.

This Personal Project has three different phases:

The 1st phase is the recovery phase, which lasts between 15 days and 2 months. This is the initial stage in which survivors have often just left the trafficking situation. During this period we offer support for  physical and emotional recovery. We support them to understand their situation and the context in Spain, inform them of their rights and give them support in making decisions, such as staying in Spain or returning to their home country. If they decide to leave Spain and return to their country, we coordinate with International Organisation of Migration to facilitate their repatriation. If they stay in Spain and choose to continue receiving support from PE, we continue to work together on their Personal Project.

Women in this first phase can opt to live in our recovery shelter, where basic needs are provided for in a safe environment including a 24 hours support system.

When short term goals are met in the first phase, women move on to the second phase, or consolidation phase in which women continue to work on their physical and emotional recovery in addition to their integration into the society and work force. They update their Personal Project reflecting on the goals that they have met and create new goals based on their experiences. Women remain in this phase for about 6 months.

Women can again opt to live in the shelter that corresponds to this phase. A shelter in which women begin to have more independence but can still rely on a safe environment and 24 hour support system of educators.

Once goals are met in the second phase, women move to the third phase or the Autonomy phase, in which they are much more independent and support is offered on a more occasional basis. We still provide shelter however in the form of independent apartments. There is an educator but 24-hours a day and they begin to contribute minimally to living costs. .

Other support offered to facilitate their physical and emotional recovery and integration is mediation with doctors and the public health system. We help women look for responses to any concerns they might have regarding their health issues. Our psychologist provides them psychological support one on one, and when they are ready, in a group. Our lawyer and legal department supports survivors in accessing their rights as victims of a crime by arranging necessary documentation, residency and work permits, and support in pressing charges and in court if their cases go to trial. The Employment and Social integration department arranges for them to take Spanish classes if necessary, employment training, provides employment skills, such as interview skills. This department also acts as a mediator between potential employers and trafficking survivors and offers information on rights as a worker.

In our Advocacy and Outreach work, we work with various organisations, including government authorities. We have been actively involved in lobbying for the development of legislation and policy practices with a human rights based approach to address anti-trafficking. We have worked with media, conducted research, attended and spoke at various conferences, forums and social networking to advocate for human rights based approach to anti-trafficking policies.

We conduct trainings on identifying potential trafficking victims and on human rights based approach to providing specialised assistance for various organisations, government officials, law enforcement authorities, social services and other such firsthand responders. This capacity building of authorities helps them to identify trafficking victims. When they suspect someone of being trafficking victims, because of our work and relationship with the authorities, they contact us. 

Do you also work with male victims of trafficking?

Our identification department is the one that comes in contact with human trafficking survivors when we are working with the first hand responders – such as law enforcement authorities, other organizations or social services. These first hand responders, as I mentioned before, get in touch with us when they detect signs of trafficking in women. We visit these victims wherever it may be, including at immigration detention centres, police station, the airport, social services, etc. We interview the person, offer them the appropriate support and advocate for their rights often times mediating with authorities. At this point, we can occasionally come in contact with a male victim. Although we do not offer comprehensive support services to males we do provide support for their immediate need and refer them to organisations that can give them more comprehensive support.

You have supported many women through direct intervention providing them shelter, psychological and legal supports. In your experience, how do women find themselves in this kind situation? What pushes women into the situation of being trafficked?

There are myriad of reasons through which women find themselves in the situation of trafficking. Most of the women being trafficked in Spain are from Eastern Europe, Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America. The majority find themselves in this situation seeking to migrate for better opportunities and improve their lives. Many of them come from a poor economic background in their origin countries, so there is the economic need. But this is not always the case. There are also many cases in which women have a stable economic situation in their home country but wish to improve their life conditions through a better paying job or study. Some of them come to Spain as students.

Another driver that we have detected is gender discrimination in origin countries which results in the lack of educational and economic opportunities for women. There are often limited jobs that are available for them. Then there is the family pressure of complying with traditional gender roles such as getting married and having children and at times against their will. They may also be victims of gender or domestic violence. These situations force women to seek out alternative opportunities.

The other issue that encourages women to migrate is family pressure – what we call, family migratory project. Sometimes the women have their own children or have younger siblings. They feel the responsibility to provide economic support for the younger siblings or their children. Therefore they migrate to send money to their families.

It is difficult for women from humble backgrounds in Eastern Europe, Latin America or Africa to have the amount of money needed and the knowledge to manage the visas and complicated paperwork necessary to migrate to Spain. This difficulty together with the situations mentioned above, drive women to take the “benefit of the doubt” when someone comes along promising a work opportunity for them in Europe. These persons are often close to them or known in their village, such as a boyfriend, neighbour, close or distant relative, or a friend of a friend.  Although they may be a bit suspicious of the motive and may be aware that trafficking exists, but their hope drives them to take the risk thinking, “it won’t happen to me” and trusting in the future that they are promised. The majority of women decide to migrate with their own free will. There are rare cases of trafficking by kidnapping or abduction.

Although women decide to migrate voluntarily, trafficking victims are deceived. The deception can be in the kind of work they believe they would be doing. Some women are told that they will be domestic helpers or other professions, and then are forced into prostitution. Other women knowingly come to work in prostitution but they are deceived in the conditions of this work. They find themselves in exploitive conditions, for instance they must hand over the majority of the money they earn, they have no say on how many clients they serve a day, how many hours, the use of protection, etc.   

As a destination country for migrant workers from Latin America, Eastern Europe and African countries, how do you see the role of recruitment agencies in Spain? Have you handled cases of ‘debt bondage’? If so, what actions were taken to help the victims?

Recruitment agencies do not have a big role in trafficking or migrating into Spain. Women usually rely on more informal channels to come to Spain.

There are many cases of debt bondage in Spain. You can see trafficking victims that can freely move around, they are not confined to any place, and there are no visible signs of control over them. However, they are controlled and enslaved by the large debt, such as 45,000€, that they are forced to pay back to their traffickers often times through their prostitution or other services. In many cases, trafficking victims normalize these debts, seeing them as the price to pay to migrate to Spain, the price to their freedom. They think they can pay it off and then they will be free. However, with debt bondage, these debts often fail to decrease – they keep mounting up or after a victim has paid the full amount, the traffickers increase the amount owed. This critical point, when women realise that the debt can never be paid off, drives them to escape as they no longer see the end of their exploitation.

We work with women to explain and inform them that these “debts” which puts them in a situation of debt bondage is crime and considered not only human trafficking but also slavery according to the United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. However, they must make the decision to stop paying the debt when they are ready. It must be on their time, not on ours. Usually for the women, it is fear for the safety of their family back home that impedes them from taking action and drives them to continue paying the traffickers. Members of the trafficking criminal network often live near the victim’s family or know where the family lives. They threaten harm on the family. We do not pressure them to press charges or stop paying the traffickers until they are ready. Whatever their decision, we respect it.

The legal framework protecting trafficking survivors is still complicated and difficult for survivors to access, so we serve to bridge the gap that exists between trafficking survivors and the law. We help them access their right to apply for residency and work permits, compensation, recover passports confiscated by the criminal networks, collaborate with law enforcement authorities, obtain witness protection mechanisms, etc.   

In your experience, what are the major demands of trafficking survivors?

The women want to recover their lives, they want their liberty back.

They want to be able to work – which in many cases is a priority for them, since economic opportunity is the most common motive for their desire to migrate. They want to be able to work often times to send money back to their family. Because it is often the welfare of their family back home for which they had decided to leave their countries. So they want to be able to support their family back home. They feel an urgency to send this money because their families were expecting it and they were unable to do so while they were in the situation of trafficking.

The other issue is security. On one hand for survivors to be safe from the traffickers and on the other hand for the safety of their family back home. Often times the traffickers back in their country know the victims’ families. So their concern is also the safety of their family back home.

Although not all, many trafficking survivors entered Spain illegally. Therefore, security also means being safe from deportation and having the right to reside in Spain. They fear being hassled and re-victimized by police having to explain again their story. They are under constant threat of being deported. They want legal residency in Spain to feel safe and be able to work here. They often have a founded fear of reprisal from traffickers in their country or origin or risk of re-trafficking.

Through intervention we also encourage psychological and health support, language and job training, as well as goal setting through what the Personal Project explained earlier.   

Do you want to tell us a little about the research work Proyecto Esperanza has conducted?

We have always placed women, the survivors, at the centre of all our work. We recently did an Impact Evaluation investigation on our work where we talked to survivors about our work. We gave them the opportunity to tell us about what work and activities have worked for them, what did not work, what can be done better and what they would like to see more of. We contacted women who received support in the past to see where they are now. Are they integrated into the society, have jobs, have the same opportunities as any other immigrant? We also contacted some survivors who were repatriated. We relied on external consultants to evaluate the interviews and questioners.

We have also conducted research on how effective policy implementation has been on the ground, if protection policies are actually benefitting the victims. This project includes research on best practices regarding the implementation of anti-human trafficking mechanisms in other countries in Europe and around the world. Spain has been a pioneer regarding its policies on Domestic Violence, but on anti-Human trafficking practices, we have been far behind. So we work together with other countries and networks, such as GAATW to collect European and global best practices in order support our perspective – to demonstrate to the authorities that what we are advocating for is necessary for human rights protection.

These are just two examples among many other research projects that we have conducted through the years.

Can you tell us briefly about your political advocacy and your effort for changes and improvement in legal framework to address trafficking? 

When we started in 1999, there was no law against trafficking in Spain. Trafficking was not recognised as a criminal activity under criminal code. There was no protection mechanism for victims. Victims that were detected were issued a deportation order. If the crime was persecuted it had to be under secondary crimes, such as forced prostitution or violence

We had to raise awareness on the prevalence of trafficking in Spain and advocate for the need to create a legal framework to address this issue. At that time the focus was on illegal immigration and border immigration controls. We needed to shift that towards the fact that trafficking occurs in Spain and we need to protect the victims whose rights are violated within our country.

Now, human trafficking is correctly codified as a crime in criminal code. There are favourable protection mechanisms referenced in the immigration law, including the right to a reflection period, the right to reside in Spain and not be issued a deportation order while one’s case is being studied, as well as the right to apply for residency and work permit for collaboration with authorities or for the personal circumstances of the victim. Our focus now is in the implementation of these protection mechanisms and ensuring that survivors actually have access to these rights. Although no one disagrees that human trafficking is a crime and victims deserve protection, there are still difficulties on the ground in the effective implementation of the law. Our work is to take this information back to the policy makers and appropriate authorities.

Our advocacy work follows a type of cycle as it begins with direct intervention on the ground with survivors. Based on their experiences, needs and difficulties we make recommendations to policy makers and authorities. When policies and protection mechanisms are passed, we go back to our work on the ground to see if they are having a real impact on the survivors and if they are being implemented. After this analysis we take this information once again to the authorities advocating again for the necessary improvements, additions and implementation of these laws.

As previously mentioned, the protection mechanisms are referenced in the immigration law. In 2013 our priority is to advocate for a comprehensive anti-trafficking structure, such as a comprehensive law against trafficking, that would include national standards and clear protection for all victims, not just those who are undocumented.