Fighting human trafficking meaningfully

August 04, 2021 8:10 AM

This will need accounting for the ‘economics’ of the crime. The proposed law does this with penalties and asset-seizure clauses

human traffickingWith no real institutional or legal framework to account for the proceeds, trade in human misery continues unabated. (Representational image)

By Sunitha Krishnan,

It is estimated that human trafficking—thriving on a ‘low investment, high returns’ model generates illicit profits of approximately $32 billion per year—a significant proportion of the total profits arising from illicit trades (including drugs, arms, fake goods, etc) estimated by the UNODC at $130 billion.

The economic aspect of human trafficking often gets overlooked: victims take years to rebuild their lives from scratch, completely dependent on civil-society support while traffickers live comfortably off the revenue made from such exploitation.

With no real institutional or legal framework to account for the proceeds, trade in human misery continues unabated. While efforts from some dynamic police officers to shut down brothels as per Section 18 of the Immoral Traffic Act did marginally affect the ‘business’ of sex-trafficking, the outcome of such efforts mostly cause minor inconveniences such as a change of location for the traffickers.

While the existing policy mechanisms and institutions to some extent can be used to combat the economics of the organised nature of this crime, it is grossly inadequate due to the absence of a clear legislative framework.
In 2012, the home ministry (MHA), for the first time in its advisory, called human trafficking an organised crime. Sections 9.7 and 9.9 of this advisory advised states to conduct financial investigations and confiscation of assets under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and other related laws.

Despite this advisory and multiple others issued thereafter, and training conducted to create awareness about the provisions of these advisories, there are very few human trafficking cases across the country in which financial investigations have been conducted by the probe agencies. One problem perhaps could have been that, till date, the Schedule in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 hasn’t been amended to include the trafficking clause i.e., Section 370 IPC and other offences related to human trafficking.

It is in this context that we look at The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, which for the first time has provisions empowering police officers to conduct such financial investigations in cases of human trafficking, thereby ensuring appropriate amendments in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 to include offences under this Act in its Schedule. For instance, Section 17 (4) and (5) of the Bill empowers investigating officers to freeze bank accounts of accused if they have been used for trafficking and proceeds therein go to the victim to meet expenses of medical treatment and rehabilitation. Section 39 makes owning, possessing, and acquiring property out of proceeds of commission of trafficking an offence. It also provides for forfeiture and attachment of such property.

It also provides for alternative punishment in Section 47, which states that, upon conviction, the designated court may also pass an order for the auction of the premises or any part thereof and the proceeds of such auction may be ordered to be remitted to a government account. Further, fines imposed on traffickers under this Act shall be paid to the victim to meet the expenses of medical treatment and rehabilitation to the extent reasonable and required for such purposes, and any excess amount of such fine shall be remitted to a government account. Thus, provisions of the new Bill dismantle the profit-churning engine by levying huge fines, running into crores of rupees, attaching of properties, and freezing of bank assets of traffickers. The Bill also recognises the cross-border nature of the crime and hence makes suitable amendments to Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, etc., for their application to the proceeds of the crime, paving way for it to become a potent tool for prevention of trafficking

This legal framework, going beyond just jail terms and fines, perhaps, will make this business model totally unviable. The draft Bill therefore addresses the problem of human trafficking both as an organised crime and as a criminal enterprise, without losing focus on the rights of the victims for financial restitution—offering a ray of hope.

The author is Founder, Prajwala

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