A growing number of Swiss organisations are working to document cases of human trafficking – such as prostitution, forced begging or organ trade – and get help to victims. One of them is a telephone hotline, whose director encounters trafficking cases daily.
More and more victims of human trafficking are being discovered in Switzerland according to the latest statistics from the Zurich-based Centre for Advocacy and Support for Migrant Women and Victims of Trafficking (FIZ).
But such figures are approximate at best because many victims don’t dare to speak up. The organisation ACT212 set up its nationwide helpline in October 2015, which allows people to ask for help or report a crime anonymously either by phone or e-mail. Its director Irene Hirzel, who has been working to combat human trafficking since 1997, explains what she encounters every day.
SWI swissinfo.ch: How would you describe the typical person who contacts you?
Irene Hirzel: We field as many reports from people who have witnessed a crime as we do from the victims themselves. Many are migrant women, but there are men too – mainly victims of forced labour – and transsexuals. We’re also seeing more suspected cases of human trafficking involving asylum seekers.
SWI swissinfo.ch: Female migrants are especially vulnerable. How can they be protected?
IH: Switzerland doesn’t do anything for asylum seekers who were victims of human trafficking on their journey to the country. Nothing can be done unless the crime took place on Swiss soil. Although they may be able to obtain asylum, these people are powerless to assert their rights as victims. We are appealing for more aid, specifically to give them access to psychological support to treat the trauma they have suffered. Getting the politicians to listen to this demand is hard.
SWI swissinfo.ch: How do you help the victims that come to you for support?
IH: First we ask them what they need. Some ask to be protected, and we direct them to a specialist centre. Many people aren’t even aware that they are victims of human trafficking or have resigned themselves to their miserable existence. After all, the traffickers sometimes give them a bit of money, which they manage to send to their families. It’s important that we tell them about their rights, to persuade them to testify. Although there aren’t any precise figures, we’re convinced that a huge number of people stay silent for fear of reprisals or due to a lack of information or prospects in their home country.
SWI swissinfo.ch: What can we do in Switzerland to get better at spotting victims?
IH: ACT212 has issued recommendations for improving the fight against human trafficking in Switzerland. For instance, catching traffickers often requires tapping their phones. This can cost several thousand francs for a single Swiss number, making life difficult for investigators.
We also provide police training on looking after victims of trauma, which is becoming increasingly popular. I’ve been working in this field for 20 years and I can say that Switzerland has made progress in combating human trafficking, specifically with the launch of a nationwide action plan in 2012. When I started out, the police couldn’t have been less interested in the issue. What’s more, the women we used to help weren’t able to turn to a police officer. If they were prostitutes living in Switzerland illegally, they were deported straight away. That’s not the case any more; special measures are put in place if human trafficking is suspected.
Human trafficking in Switzerland
The FIZ advocacy centre handled 233 trafficking cases in 2016, compared with the 184 it logged in 2009. The majority of victims were sexually exploited (58% in 2016). Most come from Hungary (23 per cent), Thailand (11 per cent) and Nigeria (10 per cent). An increasing number of asylum seekers are falling victim as well, according to the FIZ.