Human Traffickers' Assets to Be Seized

MADRID, Dec 12 -- The Spanish government announced a new plan Friday to combat human trafficking, which includes a measure for the immediate seizure of the assets of anyone convicted of involvement in such activities, in particular, those who force foreign women into prostitution.

The General Association in Defense of the Rights of Prostitutes, Hetaira, Spain’s largest association of sex workers, welcomed the government’s announcement, which it sees as a step forward, although it maintains that there are many things that should be done differently to protect the human rights of trafficked persons and prostitutes in general.

The Integral Plan to Combat Human Trafficking for the Purposes of Sexual Exploitation includes 61 measures aimed at raising social awareness and implementing a zero tolerance policy against human trafficking-related crimes.

It also seeks to tackle the causes of these crimes with active cooperation policies involving the countries of origin, transit and destination, and with the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The full implementation of the resolution adopted by the Council of Ministers Friday will require legislative reforms and amendments to the criminal code, which means it will take several months to put into effect.

The plan, which has congressional backing, includes the seizure of all assets and goods owned by pimps, managers or owners of any facilities where sexual exploitation activities are detected.

When police action is taken against an alleged pimp or human trafficker involved in the sex trade, authorities will now be able to confiscate all of the suspect’s assets and auction them off if a guilty sentence is handed down. The proceeds will go into a fund to finance the fight against these crimes.

Reforms will also be aimed at amending Spain’s criminal code to enable victims of forced prostitution to testify against their pimps or traffickers during the pre-trial stage, without being forced to testify again at the trial.

The goal of this measure is to convince the victims to cooperate in the legal proceedings, ensuring them that they will not have to face their aggressors again, which is what leads many to withdraw their testimonies after being pressured.

Cristina Garaizabal, a spokeswoman for Hetaira, told IPS that the measures adopted are positive, but that they do not go far enough, as the rights of prostitutes must be defended regardless of whether or not they report their pimps or anyone else who abuses them.

"Anyone who exploits them must be tried and convicted, because whether they are forced into prostitution or voluntarily work as prostitutes, they must all be protected in every aspect, and not just from sexual exploitation, and in particular they must receive assistance, even financial help, to become fully integrated members of society," she said.

The socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will also allocate 44 million euros (approximately 58 million dollars) to the fund to finance the plan over the space of three years. The fund will later receive the proceeds from the sale of seized assets.

According to a study by the Federation of Progressive Women, an estimated 40,000 foreign women are forced into prostitution in Spain, although only some 18,000 have been identified.

The report indicates that, even if they have paid off the trafficking rings that brought them to Spain, most of the women are forced to work as prostitutes because they need to send money home to their families.

For that reason, the Federation is calling for all of the victims to be granted permits to stay in the country without having to meet any requirements, and for them to be covered by the law against gender violence, which is currently restricted to married or unmarried couples.

The government resolution describes human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation as "a clear case of gender violence," as it primarily affects women and girls, often as a result of the feminization of poverty in the victims’ countries of origin, which is reflected by sexual discrimination, sexual division of labor, lack of education, and unemployment.

Garaizabal said another aspect to be taken into account is that the 30-day reporting period given to human trafficking victims is too short, because "they are very much conditioned by the difficult situation they are placed in, and it could take up to three months for them to react, so at least a three-month period should be granted."

Under the current legislation, foreign victims who do not report their pimps immediately are thrown out of the country.

While the new plan does not extend the mandatory reporting period, for 30 days the victims will be taken into a shelter where they will receive protection and financial assistance, as well as medical and psychological care to help them overcome their fear of the trafficking mafias and become aware of their own rights.

Other laws that will be amended under the new plan are the Free Legal Counseling Act and the Rights and Freedoms of Foreign Nationals Act, so that all victims receive immediate legal assistance at no cost and in their native language.

The Zapatero administration also plans to expedite the procedures for granting residence papers to immigrants, in cooperation with the countries of origin. Mechanisms will also be put in place to provide protection to the families of victims of trafficking back in their home countries, as victims are often kept from taking legal action by threats against their relatives.

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