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‘Human trafficking is a huge grey area’

Human trafficking is much more than kidnapping and selling people. Those who commit labour exploitation can, for example, also be sentenced for human trafficking. Criminologist Masja van Meeteren hopes to simplify the complexity of the phenomenon by charting the different forms of labour exploitation.

Women who are kidnapped in Eastern Europe to work in the Netherlands as prostitutes are one of the best-known examples of the harrowing problem that goes by the name of human trafficking. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other forms of human trafficking are less well known to the public, often because they are not recognised as such. This makes it difficult to trace, and even more difficult to deal with. This is particularly true of labour exploitation, a crime that has been treated in the Netherlands the same as human trafficking since 1995.

Consenting victim

‘It is by no means always organised gangs that traffick in people, although this is the image that most people have,’ says criminologist Masja van Meeteren, who conducts research on labour exploitation. She explains this in the context of the UN World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July. ‘In reality, the perpetrators are often families or owners of small companies, who to some extent are operating with the consent of the victims. That can make it complicated to pursue a perpetrator. It’s by no means simple to prove that force is involved.’


Van Meeteren mentions a recent example where refugees were working in the Netherlands in poor conditions in a laundry. The  status holders were promised ten euros per hour. In reality they received 4.50 euros or nothing at all.  As the amount they received was barely enough to pay for bus fares to and from the asylum centre, they slept in the laundry among the washing and the mice. 

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