160 – The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: An Interview with Panagiotis Papadimitriou

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Dr. Sandra Morgan and Dave Stachowiak talk to Panagiotis Papadimitriou to discuss the important work he is doing at UNODC. They discuss the legal database and research he is conducting. They also talk about the difference between human trafficking and migrant smuggling and why it is so critical to understand the distinction.

Key Points

  • Much of UNODC’s work revolves around developing studies and conducting research.
  • UNODC’s target audience is people involved in the criminal justice processes.
  • UNODC maintains a database that allows practitioners to search for past cases to use as a reference.
  • Many people, including government officials, confuse and conflate human trafficking with migrant smuggling.
  • Human trafficking revolves around the key concept of exploitation.
  • Human smuggling involves moving from one person to another location illegally, but this often leads to human trafficking.
  • Trafficking victims often have more protections than illegal migrants.


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Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 160, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Production Credits: [00:00:08] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, one of the great benefits that I’ve gotten just on a purely selfish level over the years of being a cohost on the show with you is learning so many things about the world, organizations that you’ve partnered with Sandie, and so much about this issue. And one of the institutions that I’ve learned a little bit about in that time is the United Nations. And I’m really excited today to be able to learn more about a part of the United Nations I’m very unaware of and I think our audience will learn a lot too. And today’s guest comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and his name is Panagiotis Papadimitriou. Panagiotis is a Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice officer working in the human trafficking and migrant smuggling section of the Organized Crime Branch of the division of treaty affairs under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime headquarters. He joined Sandie in Athens, Greece for the conference on human trafficking during the Greece summer study abroad. And Sandie, that was this past summer wasn’t it.

Sandie: [00:01:51] That’s right. And we’ve been invited back. So welcome to the show. We’ll dispense with formalities and we’re just going to call you Takis because you’ve become a great friend and we have learned so much from you since meeting you in Greece this last summer.

Panagiotis: [00:02:09] Thank you very much, Sandie. I have to say I’m very glad to be here with you and talk to you. And actually, it was a great pleasure for me to join you in Athens. And I have to tell you that I have learned an equal lot if not more than you did through my participation there.

Sandie: [00:02:29] You are very kind. First of all, though, let’s tell our listeners about what the UNODC actually is and why combating human trafficking is situated in that office in Vienna.

Panagiotis: [00:02:44] Well you know this is first of all the department of the Secretariat of the United Nations and is actually the department that is mandated by the member states to deal with issues related to drugs and crime countering gangs, drug crime, preventing drug abuse and criminality, and helping states implementing the different international instruments and relating to drugs and crime. Now my section, the team I’m working with is actually the section of UNODC which is specifically dealing with the international instruments on trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants. That is the United Nations protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. And the United Nations protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea, and air which are both supplementing the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. So UNODC is I would say the guardian of international instruments, which means that we are responsible to assist states in implementing them. And when it comes to trafficking, to take all the measures that is necessary to criminalize trafficking in persons, in accordance with international definition agreed in the protocol, to protect the victims of trafficking, to prevent trafficking, and also to partner among them, among the states, but also with other people in the civil society or international organizations. Because you know very well, that trafficking in persons is a multifaceted phenomenon where it requires a holistic response to be addressed. So, this is the role for UNODC and trafficking, mainly supporting states also coordinating with other agencies. And I would say a great deal of our work in developing studies and doing research into human trafficking.

Sandie: [00:05:19] And that’s a really interesting place to start because when I went on the UNODC website and looked for a human trafficking, I began to discover so many resources that would help me in the classroom where I’m teaching on human trafficking. We also have had an anti-human trafficking certificate. And so, it’s been easy for me to find examples of case law, legislation, those sorts of things because your office produces the human trafficking knowledge portal. And when you say knowledge portal and I click on that, it’s not one or two articles, it is an entire bibliography database included there. So, can you tell me how you developed that knowledge base and how it’s maintained so that I know that it’s up to date.

Panagiotis: [00:06:19] Well, first of all to keep it up to date is our responsibility. Right? As UNODC we are really doing our best to do that. So, the anti-trafficking knowledge portal is essentially a database of legislation on the one hand and on occasion the jurisprudence on the other hand. Anti-trafficking legislation is provided to us mainly by member states that are requested officially to do so but also through research that we are conducting and the results of which are validated of course with the member states. Case law equally comes from experts that we have been working with in different jurisdictions and consists mainly on judgements and decisions of the courts of first instance, the second instance, or Supreme Courts that are publicly available. I have to say we are very proud of that because a couple of months ago we have reached the threshold of one hundred states. So, we have the case law database jurisprudence coming from more than 100 jurisdictions around the world, which is a really great achievement for us. And we are working to increase the number even further. In addition to this database, we have also recently published a case digest on human trafficking, which presents an analysis of the evidential issues discussed in a number of selective cases of trafficking. And this is a very important tool especially for criminal justice practitioners, prosecutors, and judges because in fact our main target audience at UNODC are the people involved in the criminal justice process as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges. And these are the professionals that we mainly target through our capacity, building, and technical assistance activities. As well as of course legislators when it comes to developing legislation that aligned with the international instruments.

Sandie: [00:09:11] So how would someone use that case database? Would they use it for developing their prosecution or? I’m not an attorney, break it down for me in really simple terms.

Panagiotis: [00:09:26] I will explain it to you. First of all, the decisions of the judgments from the database actually illustrate how the definition, how the offence of trafficking persons was interpreted in different situations locally and how judges and prosecutors understood the elements composing human trafficking. If you read the definition of human trafficking I mean it’s a quite complicated, complex definition and the protocol and it is the same in most national legislation, I have to say. We’re talking about a very serious crime but which is also capturing complex conduct involving concepts such as deception, fraud, abuse of a position, vulnerability, consent of the victim, the freedom of the victim for example to comply or not to an abusive, an exploitative behavior of the traffickers. All of these issues have been addressed over the years since 2000 when the protocol was adopted. The database allows the practitioners to perform searches through keywords, for example, “consent of the victim”. According to the protocol, consent is irrelevant when the means such as force, threat, or deception in front have been used to exploit a victim of trafficking. There are several issues arising when we’re talking about the consent of the victim and we want to address it as irrelevant in a trafficking situation. So, a practitioner has to deal with a case of trafficking where there is an appearance of consent from the victim can go into the database, click on the keyword “consent,” and see the different jurisdictions and find reference to the domestic legislation. How have the courts dealt with that issue? I mean you know situations may differ and domestic legislation may be very different. But I think the approaches can only be reached by looking into how other people have dealt with those issues.

Sandie: [00:12:17] Well, and the inspiring thing for me is that most of my knowledge base has been situated right here out of California. Many of my listeners know I’ve been part of the Orange County human trafficking task force. So that means that it’s very limited by U.S. law and looking at international education, having the opportunity to search and find examples from other countries really strengthens understanding and the ability to actually be effectively a change agent in international situations. For instance, hosting and partnering on the conference in Athens last year and bringing actors from Kurdistan to that conversation and entering into the dialogue that is based on a much broader base. And I have to tell you, my students will have new assignments based on the abilities to search those databases and make comparative and contrasting analyses. So, students standby for that assignment. I’m watching our time and I have so many things on my agenda to ask you about, Takis, especially the connection between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Can we spend a few minutes on how the U.N. can help us? UNODC can help us understand that issue because it’s such a huge crisis globally?

Panagiotis: [00:13:49] The distinction between trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants is actually of great interest to us because we have been seeing since 2000 that not only students or people that do not specialized knowledge of immigration but also government officials and practitioners tend to confuse and conflate the two situations. Trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants are two different types of crimes. And they are addressing two different protocols of the United Nations. Very briefly, the main difference between the two I would say is that trafficking involves the key concept of exploitation. And this is why it is such a terrible crime because it involves the exploitation of a person by another person as if a human being can become a commodity or an object. And this exploitation is meant to go on and on, as the human being who is exploited is seen by the trafficker as a source of regular revenue, I would say. The smuggling of migrants, on the other hand, describes the situation where a person helps another person to cross our border illegally to reach a state of which he is not here, so he’s not a citizen or a permanent resident, and that in order for the smuggler to procure financial or other material benefits. So, you see here, we are talking about a rather consensual, at least initially, relationship where one person seeks the services of this smuggler to facilitate a movement across the border, which would not be possible through legal means. I would say when the border is crossed the relationship is supposed to end, the smuggling fee is paid, and the smuggler continues his journey or finds his way into the destination country. So, this is the main difference.

Panagiotis: [00:16:36] Another difference is that trafficking in persons, and you know that Sandie, from your experience in California, does not necessarily involve the crossing of a border. So, trafficking can happen within the same country or even within the same city. A person can be recruited to deception, fraud, or abuse transported from one house to another and be exploited in forced labor world persecution without even leaving outside his city or the area where he or she leaves. While the smuggling of migrants by definition involves the crossing of an international border. These are the main differences and it is very important to distinguish between the two crimes because the responses to them are different. Trafficking very often is punished by much more stringent penalties than the smuggling of migrants. And most importantly the victims of trafficking, according to the international standards and most of the domestic legislation, are entitled to a series of protection assistance and support measures in view of the rehabilitation and to overcome the heavily traumatic experiences that are particular to them. So, it is very important to protect and identify situation because otherwise the victims of trafficking may or may not be able to be given the support and the treatment they are entitled to and that will help them to be rehabilitated. That said, in the global migration crisis that we are facing, very often you know a situation can start as smuggling with migrants as consensual and as very time-bound, but in the process, it develops in a situation that is similar to trafficking or be actually involved in trafficking. For instance, smugglers may agree with the migrant to help him cross an international border, but then in the process, they realize that they may be able to make more money by exploiting that person. So, a person who has initially consented to be smuggled may be facing before he reaches the destination treatment that is intended to exploit him.

Sandie: [00:19:43] So one of the initiatives that’s grown out of this understanding this overlap between trafficking and smuggling migrants has been the Glow Act, global action to prevent and address trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants. And it’s a four year we’re almost at the end. Well, we’re halfway through, it’s 2017 and it started in 15 goes to 2019. Can you tell me how that program is working? Is it effective? Can we look for lessons learned that we can start applying now?

Panagiotis: [00:20:23] Yes. Well, this program, if you wish, is the program that we are currently implementing. And it targets 13 countries all over the world. The countries are different, we have Brazil and Colombia in Latin America, Egypt, Morocco, Mali, and South Africa in Africa then Bangladesh and now in Pakistan in Asia as well as the Ukraine and Belarus in eastern Europe. This is a project that is funded by the European Union and implemented in partnership with the International Organization for Migration in unison. It is working very well. We have deployed the staff colleagues in every single of the countries if I’m not mistaken so far where the project is implemented. And this is a great plus because they’re able to follow closely the implementation and on a daily basis with our partners in the ground and the governmental authorities and be able to push constantly to achieve the result that we are expecting. Now I would like to clarify that the reason why both trafficking and smuggling are concerned, is because my station is responsible for both. And our interventions are targeting either trafficking in persons or the smuggling of migrants. So, it’s not about addressing an overlap or trying to respond to a situation that could be qualified at the same time as trafficking and smugglings, but rather to help the states develop a comprehensive response to both crimes. Our intervention is actually in some countries are more focused on trafficking, in others are more focused on smuggling. That depends on the local convicts and the local priorities and determent always in consultation with the local authorities. I think a great achievement of this project and lesson learned is of course beyond the engagement of the local authorities, which is key and very high in all countries, but the fact that we are able to connect countries between them and to bring people from the countries where the project is implemented to meet up and to discuss how their responses to trafficking and smuggling are being developed.

Sandie: [00:23:28] So it’s very strategic. One of the wonderful things that I learned about when we first connected last year is the depth of the resources. When I talked about different terminology, the next day I got an email from you with how to say human trafficking in 163 languages. That was just absolutely, well you know I love data so it’s fun to learn those things. But if we as practitioners, and I’m really talking to my students and our listeners, if we want to make a difference we can’t come from just our own perspective, we need to understand other people’s situations and that includes what the legislative and judicial systems in those countries look like and how that functions. And that kind of leads me to my last question for this interview because of course, we’ll invite you back. But what are the greatest challenges that you face in your job?

Panagiotis: [00:24:31] Our greatest challenges, there are so many.

Sandie: [00:24:35] Now let’s take your top three.

Panagiotis: [00:24:37] First thing I would say, is a lack of understanding of the word in many parts of the world and among many key actors of what trafficking really is, what it involves, and what the impact on the victim is. I think there is a lot of work to do there, to bring not only the legislation that is in line with international standards. But I would say also, the mindset in line with the gravity of the crime. Another issue that is affecting us, is the lack of resources to do everything that we are planning to do and all that we have in mind to advance the agenda around the world. And a third challenge, I think it’s more related to our Aerial Work, to the area of helping the development of effective and efficient criminal justice responses to those crimes. Challenges I would say the notice isn’t as strong as we would have wished the international cooperation to address transnational aspects of trafficking but also smuggling. I think that the more we work on this, the better the results will be. But you mentioned all the trafficking in 163 different languages. I would also need to tell you and also for you streaming that there is an additional resource that is very useful, and we are pretty proud of it, is the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, which is published every two years. The last edition was published in 2016 and the next one is in 2018. Which contains data on convictions, on victims, on patterns, and roots of trafficking in persons around the world. So, this is also available on the on our website and accessible to everybody. It has a general part and also a part that is dedicated to the countries that have contributed to the publication. And last but not least, in addition to me and my colleagues in living here in the UNODC headquarters, it is useful also to know that there are colleagues all around the world in different regions, who are also carrying out their work on trafficking in persons, supporting local criminal justice practitioners, implementing projects that are national or regionally based. And it would be a pity to not pay tribute to the work that they are doing as well.

Sandie: [00:28:12] Well this has been an amazing conversation. And it’s extremely important for especially students and people who are new in addressing human trafficking to consider the resources through the United Nations. It is not an isolated crime, it doesn’t happen just in California. We can’t just know California law, we can’t just know U.S. law. But it’s important for us to understand where victims come from, especially as we try to develop strategies to stop that. And it is such a pleasure to talk to you again, Takis.

Panagiotis: [00:28:50] No, it was a pleasure to talk to you for me, Sandie and I wish you all the best for your efforts and also best of success for your students and their endeavors.

Sandie: [00:29:03] Well I hope to see you again. Our students are going back to Greece, we’re taking another class in May and June and we will certainly invite you to join us again if you’re available. So, thank you. And it’s just been a delight to talk to you again.

Panagiotis: [00:29:22] Thank you very much for your kind words and hope to see you very soon and hopefully in Greece, who knows.

Dave: [00:29:35] Sandie, yet another incredible perspective from Takis on the work the United Nations is doing. And if this conversation has generated questions from you or maybe you want to learn more or get connected with us. We hope you’ll take a moment to e-mail us at feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org. Or you can visit the ending human trafficking website at endinghumantrafficking.org and sign up for our newsletter here. The Ensure Justice conference is going to be here in about three seconds even though it’s a few months away.

Sandie: [00:30:09] I know, I can hardly wait, I’m so excited.

Dave: [00:30:11] It’s going to be March 2nd and 3rd 2018. You can register now at ensurejustice.com. If you’ve never joined us for the conference here in Southern California we hope you’ll join us live, go to ensurejustice.com to register early. And Sandie, I will see you in two weeks.

Sandie: [00:30:27] Alright. Thanks, Dave.

Dave: [00:30:28] Take care, everyone.

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