A residence permit safeguards victims of human trafficking in a vulnerable position – the threshold for granting the permit must be lowered
Trafficking in human beings is a serious crime targeting individuals and, simultaneously, affecting the entirety of society. Combating human trafficking, preventing it and supporting victims of trafficking is within the interests of the individual as well as the whole society. Recovering from exploitation requires time and support. A residence permit plays a significant role in stabilising the situation of victims of human trafficking with foreign background, but in practice residence permits for human trafficking victims are granted only rarely.
The threshold for receiving a residence permit is high for sexually exploited victims of human trafficking in a vulnerable position. A residence permit is a concrete tool, alongside the other measures adopted to help, which can calm the situation of a victim of human trafficking and enable recovery. Support measures are important especially for traumatised victims in vulnerable position. The residence permit and its validity have also a significant impact on the planning of support and help measures, such as therapy.
The threshold for receiving a continuous residence permit as a victim of human trafficking is high
The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, who is the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, has been paying attention to the residence permit process and its problems from the perspective of victims of human trafficking for several years. The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman published a study (pdf, in Finnish) on residence permit practices concerning victims of trafficking in human beings in autumn 2021.
A residence permit for a victim of human trafficking may be issued on a continuous basis if the victim of trafficking in human beings is in a particularly vulnerable position or on a temporary basis due to a pretrial investigation or court proceedings. One of the key observations in the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman’s study was that the threshold for receiving a continuous residence permit as a victim of human trafficking is remarkably high. A victim of human trafficking is only rarely deemed to be in a particularly vulnerable position in a manner required by the permit. There was great variation in which decision is given when it comes to residence permit for a victim of human trafficking, permit on compassionate grounds and negative decision.
Trafficking in human beings is a serious crime and addressing it benefits the whole society. This is why we should promote the detection of human trafficking. In Finland, determined work for preventing work-related exploitation has been carried out in recent years. The Aliens Act was amended with a permit criterion for victims of work-related exploitation in order to promote the detection of foreign labour exploitation and safeguard the rights of its victims (section 54 b of the Aliens Act). The aim of the permit is to support the victims in breaking free of exploitation.
The threshold for receiving a continuous residence permit due to work-related exploitation was set on a reasonable level on purpose. In the light of this, the threshold for a continuous residence permit for a victim of human trafficking is extremely high. A temporary residence permit, on the other hand, only has a weak impact and requires criminal proceedings concerning human trafficking. With a temporary residence permit, possibilities of family reunification or receiving Kela benefits are limited.
Protection for victims of sexual exploitation in the form of a residence permit must be strengthened
Approximately five continuous residence permits are issued for victims of human trafficking in a particularly vulnerable position per year. In comparison, there were 281 victims of sexual exploitation recorded in the Assistance system for victims of human trafficking at the end of 2021. Serious and long-lasting sexual violence does not always lead to receiving a residence permit as a victim of human trafficking or due to individual, humanitarian grounds, but the decision may nevertheless be negative.
In addition, the Aliens Act includes ground for denying the entry of a foreigner if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that they may sell sexual services (section 148, subsection 1, point 6 of the Aliens Act). This creates distrust of the residence permit system among victims of human trafficking, who have been sexually exploited in Finland, for example, through prostitution. The strict permit granting procedure and separate refusal of entry grounds do not encourage sexually exploited victims of human trafficking in Finland to apply for a residence permit.
As demonstrated by the work-related exploitation, detection of crimes and victim support can be improved. This work should also be carried out among victims of other forms of human trafficking. Structures must be changed so that victims of sexual exploitation will have courage to reveal exploitation targeted at them. The residence permit should better respond to the needs of victims of human trafficking identified in Finland. When the residence permit ground was entered in the Aliens Act, no victims of human trafficking were identified in Finland, which means that the permit was drafted for an imaginary target group.
The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman calls for a rapid amendment to the Act. The Aliens Act needs to be reformed so that sexually exploited victims of human trafficking will have a real opportunity to receive a residence permit.
First of all, the Act must be amended so that a vulnerable position, instead of particularly vulnerable position, is sufficient for being granted a residence permit. Vulnerability must be assessed carefully, and the threshold must be kept low.
Secondly, the prerequisites for a temporary residence permit should be changed so that the rights of a claimant of a criminal case are protected throughout the process, in other words, the right of residence covers the entire duration of the process. It must be possible to get the permit quickly.
The amendments cannot wait for the Aliens Act to be comprehensively reformed. The Parliament already required, on the basis of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman’s 2018 report to the parliament, that the Government clarifies any need for legislation amendments in terms of the residence permit criteria concerning human trafficking victims. Clarifications have been completed, now it’s time to take action.