Human trafficking

Most victims of human trafficking who are exploited in Switzerland originally come from another country. Most of them start out with wanting to improve their own life and that of their family. They decide to migrate because they have been promised a job. Once they arrive, it turns out that it was a false promise or that they were deceived about the working conditions. They are forced to work under threats, violence or because of alleged debts and are exploited in this predicament.

Human trafficking in Switzerland occurs particularly in precarious work sectors, such as sex work, in private households, in agriculture, construction or the hotel and restaurant industry. It is very difficult for those affected to defend themselves and receive support because of the force and compulsion exercised by the perpetrators, but also because of their precarious legal situation. Only a few dare to testify against the perpetrators, which is why there are very few convictions in Switzerland.

Human trafficking is a complex problem. It is an extreme form of exploitation that must be analyzed and understood in the context of global poverty, restrictive migration regimes, economic crises and discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.


What is the definition of human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights and a criminal offence.

According to the internationally accepted definition, trafficking in human beings has three characteristics:
– Action = trafficking (recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, reception of persons)
– Use of illicit means (violence, deception, threats, exploitation of helplessness, coercion)
– Purpose (sexual exploitation, exploitation of labor or removal of body organs).

This definition has been established in international agreements (Palermo Protocol / Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings).

Switzerland has signed these agreements and adopted this definition of human trafficking in national legislation (StGb § 182). The European Convention against Human Trafficking contains many other obligations Switzerland must comply with – particularly with regard to the protection and support of victims.


How many victims of human trafficking are there?

Figures on victims of human trafficking are difficult to determine precisely. Human trafficking takes place in secret. Therefore, only rough estimates of the extent of this human rights violation are available.

According to the International Labor Organization ILO, around 25 million people worldwide become victims of forced labor and human trafficking every year.

In 2019, the four NGOs of the Swiss Platform against Human Trafficking together advised more than 400 victims of human trafficking. Most of the people were exploited in the cantons of Zurich, Geneva, Vaud, Solothurn and Bern. Most of the people were from Nigeria, Thailand, Romania and Hungary.

In comparison, the number of convictions is low: in 2019 there were only 7 convictions for human trafficking in Switzerland.


What protection is available to the victims of human trafficking?

Victims of human trafficking are guaranteed special rights under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which has been in force in Switzerland since 2013. Anyone who escapes exploitation or is freed from it, for example by the police, is entitled to a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days, regardless of their residence status. The purpose of this recovery and reflection period is to allow victims to recover as effectively as possible and escape the influence of traffickers. During this period, they have to decide whether to cooperate with the prosecuting authorities and testify against the traffickers.


Furthermore, the victims of human trafficking are entitled to specialised support services during this period. This means counselling by a specialist organisation that is familiar with the situation of the victims of human trafficking (e.g. the four organisations that set up this platform) medical, psychological and financial assistance and secure accommodation (e.g. in a professionally supervised safe house of the type run by our member organisations FIZ and Astrée). In Switzerland, these services are paid for through the Victim Support Act, but only if the exploitation took place in Switzerland.


If victims decide to testify against the traffickers, the authorities can issue them a residence permit for the duration of criminal proceedings and extend the period during which they receive specialised support services. Once proceedings have ended, victims are required to return to their country of origin. For many, returning to their home country is associated with fresh dangers and greater vulnerability, including the risk of a significant number being “re-trafficked” (i.e. returned to a situation in which they are exploited). In exceptional cases, it is therefore possible to apply for a residence permit to enable victims who are likely to face hardship to remain in Switzerland beyond the duration of proceedings.


However, many victims do not have access to all these rights. They are not recognised as victims and are deported because they do not have a residence permit or because their asylum application has been rejected. There are major variations in Cantons’ commitment to combating human trafficking. Where there is effective cooperation between adequately funded, specialist victim protection organisations, specialised police and investigation units and sensitised public prosecutors, more victims receive access to protection and support services and more traffickers are successfully prosecuted.


Delivering effective victim protection will require improvements at various levels. The Focal points section” contains more information on the major shortcomings in victim protection in Switzerland and on ways of remedying them. To ensure genuine action to combat this brutal violation of human rights, however, it is above all essential to address its causes. Switzerland needs more safe and legal migration and employment opportunities, particularly for low-skilled jobs.


How do I recognize a trafficked person?

People affected by human trafficking are rarely imprisoned. They usually come into contact people, who could identify them as victims of human trafficking: at the border, at the embassy, in hospitals, on the premises of social services, in neighborhoods, in various accommodation facilities, on the street, at information and registration desks, in the entertainment sector and at various workplaces.

The following points may be an indication that a person is a trafficked person:
– The person tells about excessive debts that do not diminish in spite of earning, about jobs he or she no longer wants to perform, about deception, humiliation or blackmail against themselves or their children.
– The person appears to be under duress (even if it is unclear where it comes from).
– There are indications of physical violence, rape or deprivation of liberty.

The Federal Office of Police fedpol has compiled a detailed list of indicators for identifying victims of human trafficking.

Affected persons hardly ever describe themselves as victims of human trafficking and therefore do not contact the police or counseling centers. They are very distrustful of authorities, especially the police, as they often have an insecure residence status and have no knowledge of their rights. Often the perpetrators consciously fuel this fear by claiming that they have good relations with the police or by telling false facts about the legal situation (e.g. regarding sex work).


How can I help a person affected by human trafficking?

If you are in contact with a person who may be a victim of human trafficking, please note the following points:

As soon as there is a suspicion of human trafficking, it is essential to contact and involve experts such as one of the four specialized victim counseling centers. Human trafficking is very complex and not easy to detect. It requires time, trust and specialized knowledge.

Do not act over the head of the person concerned: investigations can be made anonymously, but the consent of the person concerned is required before the information can be passed on to specialized victim counseling centers.

Do not stereotype potential victims of this crime! Stereotypical images of how a victim looks or behaves may prevent us from recognizing the vulnerability of a person who is not seen as part of a special risk group.