Cities worldwide are nodes for networks of human trafficking, which the UN defines as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit”. The problem is widespread. Data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime documents more than 115,000 human trafficking cases in Europe and the Americas in 2021. More recent reports show a worsening trend in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the Americas, although better detection may account for some of the increase. Whatever the reason, thousands of victims in North American and European cities, many of whom may never be detected or protected, are still trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labor in food supply chains, construction, and the hospitality industry, among other sectors. 

Local governments rarely have the political competence and administrative capacity to combat such crimes. Even when city officials, such as those in AmsterdamHouston, and Barcelona, strive to protect victims and confront perpetrators, they only ever see part of the picture. To be able to do more, city officials must join forces across borders to share knowledge and experiences, and national governments must cooperate with and support local action. 

Amsterdam has already taken a step in this direction. It has created the European Cities and Regions on Human Trafficking (ECTR) network, which, in cooperation with GMF Cities, organized early this year a multistakeholder meeting and workshop to combat the scourge of human trafficking. The convening highlighted innovative practices; identified partnership opportunities within and among cities, national governments, and supranational institutions; and examined the perceived increase in trafficking from Europe and the Americas. The meeting brought together US and European city officials with representatives of local law enforcement agencies, the EU Commission, Europol, the Regional Implementation Initiative on Preventing & Combating Human Trafficking, and academic experts. 

Peer learning and exchange to fight human trafficking is in its infancy in European cities, despite the work of committed cities such as Amsterdam. It is practically nonexistent at the transatlantic level. The recent gathering was, therefore, a unique opportunity for officials from Houston and experts in exploitation and trafficking in the Americas, such as Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition Fellow Melissa Torres and Schar School of Policy and Government Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, to share their experiences and insights with European counterparts. 

Houston has been particularly active in the fight against human trafficking, the result of a mayor’s office that has prioritized the issue. The city is engaged in a wide range of activities including outreach and victim support, municipal staff training on victim identification and support, and cooperation with civil society actors. It has also developed toolkits and offered training to other local governments

Below are key recommendations developed by ECTR network participants. They are meant for cities, national governments, the European Commission, law enforcement institutions, the hotel industry, website providers, and NGOs.

Increase city-to-city cooperation: Trafficking does not stop at borders, but local and national authority jurisdictions do. Cross-border cooperation tends to be restricted to law enforcement agencies, which leaves local governments that play an essential role in prevention and victim assistance with limited scope for action. Victims, however, often remain on the move and may be trafficked among cities several times per year. Local governments in border regions and along trafficking routes should create regional task forces. Municipal officials at the ECTR gathering highlighted the ability to contact counterparts to see if they are facing similar challenges as a game changer for identifying (new) trafficking routes, emerging vulnerabilities (e.g., increased migration flows and a greater frequency of natural disasters), new areas of exploitation (e.g., food delivery apps), and engaging in trafficking prevention, especially in the Schengen area within which people can move freely. 

Increase cooperation across local, national, and supranational levels: National and supranational authorities such as Europol need to recognize local governments as partners. Local officials in health and social services, in addition to civil society organizations, often have a precise understanding of victims’ backgrounds and experiences, which can be useful for other levels of government. They, in turn, may have information and resources that can help local officials more effectively conduct outreach and assistance. The key to effective networked approaches is establishing coordination among cities, regions, and countries. All three, and supranational authorities, should support and participate in task forces. 

Increase intra-city cooperation: Within cities, human trafficking is often treated as an isolated issue. Trust and dialogue among city officials, civil society, and local law enforcement may also be lacking. These are significant obstacles to combating human trafficking. Strengthening intra-city cooperation is, therefore, important for:

  • civil servants and civil society. They should raise public visibility of human trafficking and lobby elected officials to support local and national efforts to fight it. 

  • city agencies responsible for human rights, social affairs, employment, and health services. They should strive for greater internal collaboration and outreach to civil society groups, law enforcement, and affected communities. 

  • other municipal authorities. They could benefit from cooperation with research institutes to collate data and conduct evidence-based evaluations of measures that would help shape local policies. Few cities, however, have the resources to do this and showcase the impact and importance of the work. City officials also need to find ways to partner with the private sector. Industries that tend to draw human trafficking victims, such as construction and hospitality, should be subject to inspection and regulation that ensures staff are trained in victim identification. Municipal reward programs could also cite those who uphold high ethical standards. Houston’s hotel ordinance training and certification offers an example to be emulated.

Include those who have experienced human trafficking in policymaking and implementation: Local governments should consult those who have been trafficked at all stages of the anti-trafficking policymaking and implementation process. Local governments and NGOs should employ such persons as social workers and cultural translators to draw on their context-sensitive knowledge and cultural insights.

Link awareness-raising to protection opportunities: Cities increasingly offer staff training on combating trafficking. However, the ability to identify potential victims has limited value if no support structure for them exists. The Amsterdam Center for Sex Workers is an example of local government support for a civil society initiative that offers services and assistance to victims without their having to fear the discovery of their undocumented legal or residency status.

Connect the online and the offline worlds: Major parts of the system of human trafficking and exploitation are increasingly organized virtually. Yet city authorities struggle to assess the consequences of this. They could better understand the connections between the online and offline worlds with the cooperation of digital providers.

ECTR networked cities show that local authorities have an enormous potential to cooperate with others in the fight against human trafficking. By involving civil society, research institutions, the private sector, national governments, and supranational authorities such as Europol and the European Commission, cities develop a holistic view of the trafficking system that helps to identify established and emerging trafficking routes, offer victims protection, and more effectively work on stopping the scourge.