Tunisia has made significant advances since 2016 to stop human trafficking. Laws have been passed, anti-trafficking institutions created, and growing numbers of victims identified and rescued. To really reduce the risk for potential victims, the challenge now is to ensure that new anti-trafficking legislation is fully implemented.
Tunisia has long been both an origin and destination country for human trafficking. It also faces the challenge of (often) poor and marginalised Tunisians being forced into servitude in the country. Successive governments from the 1950s to the 2000s ratified international treaties against trafficking, but implementation has often been weak.
As cases under investigation have increased, the number of successful prosecutions has lagged
The law against human trafficking passed by Tunisia in 2016 sought to address the implementation gap. It created the National Committee against Trafficking in Persons (NCTIP) to develop a national strategy and establish coordinated mechanisms to identify victims, care for and protect them, and prosecute offenders.
The NCTIP has actively pursued its mandate. It has worked with the justice and interior ministries to train law enforcement and judicial actors on trafficking victim identification, prosecutorial tools and organised crime investigative techniques. It has engaged the ministries of health, and women, family and children affairs, to develop protection programmes for minors and healthcare for victims. Strong partnerships with civil society organisations have been established to create clear channels for trafficking victims.
As a result of these and other government efforts, there has been a sharp upturn in trafficking investigations. Between 2014 and 2018, the number increased by 1 296%, and the number of victims identified rose from 59 to 780. In contrast to previous years, a significant number of those were foreigners, with Ivorians alone accounting for 40.5% of victims.
Despite harsh sentencing provisions, the only trafficker convicted last year got a four-month sentence
The NCTIP has also sought to publicise the problem in Tunisia, where levels of awareness about trafficking are low. The commission’s president Raoudha Laabidi has issued several public statements, including on sexual abuse and trafficking faced by female Tunisian workers in Saudi Arabia, and on labour exploitation and sexual abuse of Tunisian youth at a religious school in the country’s centre.
The NCTIP’s achievements are significant but even as the number of cases under investigation has risen, the number of successful prosecutions has lagged. Thirty-one cases brought to trial between 2018 and 2019 were analysed by Judge Samar Jaidi. Only one conviction was recorded (although a number of cases continue). This is not an aberration, with only a single conviction reported the year before.
According to the same analysis, in seven of these cases, the offence of human trafficking was not specified, while the rest were opened for economic exploitation (nine cases) or sexual exploitation (two cases). Only four cases received a decision to open criminal prosecutions, while the remaining cases are still under investigation.
Tunisia has the tools and drive to tackle trafficking – this must be matched by better law enforcement
In many instances investigation and prosecution are slowed or stalled due to a lack of knowledge about the 2016 law. This also damages efforts to deter trafficking. Judges unfamiliar with the law have tended to rule on cases based on general criminal law, which can result in more lenient sentences. The 2016 law lays out robust sanctions, ranging from 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment, but the only trafficker convicted in the past year received a four-month sentence.
Full implementation of the law requires criminal justice personnel to be more informed. The NCTIP has started working on this, co-hosting training workshops with civil society organisations for judges, legal practitioners and police. Progress is however slow. Judicial and police responses to trafficking are still hindered by a lack of awareness about the trafficking law, the legal and prosecutorial mechanisms it offers, and when it should take precedence over general criminal law.
Tunisia needs to urgently close these knowledge gaps, as the risk of human trafficking may be rising. More foreign irregular migrants have arrived in recent years. Their lack of official clearance to stay makes them vulnerable to forced labour and trafficking. Tunisia is also increasingly a transit country for irregular migrants trying to reach Europe. While most arrive and depart without falling victim to traffickers, exploitation is rising.
The NCTIP has the tools and drive to deal with the increased risk of trafficking. This must be matched by better implementation of the 2016 law. Technical education of judicial and law enforcement personnel is key, and public awareness also needs to be raised. The past three years show that crafting new legislation is the easiest part of reform. Ensuring that new laws, and their accompanying tools, are understood and used by judges, prosecutors and police is much harder.
Written by Rim Dhaouadi, ENACT Researcher – North Africa, ISS.