Investigating cases of human trafficking is like a complex jigsaw puzzle that takes months to build but one night to come undone. Vice Squad Police Sergeant Ben Valletta and Assistant Commissioner Dennis Theuma outline some of the challenges facing the investigators of a racket more lucrative than drugs. By Sarah Carabott.

When a human trafficking victim gets cold feet and backtracks on his or her promise to testify, the case falls through, no matter how much documentation the prosecutors may have in hand to back up the claims.

“Once a victim is identified, that victim has a right to a two-month grace period. During these two months, they have to decide whether to proceed against the perpetrator in court,” sergeant Ben Valletta told this newspaper.

Unlike ex-officio prosecutions, which see the police spring into action once they are tipped off, human trafficking prosecutions can be carried forward only at the complaint of the injured party.

READ: Malta's failure to convict human traffickers has NGOs worried

“I could have a whole case ready, but unless I have a victim who is ready to proceed to testify against someone – not just speak up – I cannot prosecute,” she said.

If a victim decides that they do not want to proceed further, they are still helped out with repatriation.

Another challenge for the police is what AC Dennis Theuma terms the “domino effect”: while one victim might lead police to another, if one of them gets cold feet and feels threatened, others could follow suit and drop out of the investigation.

And in the meantime, investigators have to be wary of the Stockholm syndrome, where one of the victims could turn into a ‘supervisor’, monitoring fellow victims and reporting back to the exploiter in order to gain the perpetrator’s favour.

Away from the Hollywood version of people being kidnapped and trafficked, there is not much awareness about the more subtle, and more common, types of human trafficking.

Ms Valletta said that in cases of labour exploitation, for example, people are handed a work contract that lists their salary, accommodation, medical coverage and food allowance among others.

The recruitment agent then requests a sum purportedly to fund flights and visa among other expenses. Some do not have this amount of money in hand and borrow it, sometimes even from loan sharks.

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But once they land in Malta, their contract is shredded and a new one drawn up with different rights. They might still get a salary, but the new contract would stipulate that they have to pay for accommodation and food. Once they are “broken” this way, they are forced into working longer hours, under inadequate conditions.

I could have a whole case ready but unless I have a victim who is ready to testify against someone – not just speak up – I cannot prosecute

Sometimes, even if all these details have come to the surface, the human trafficking investigators have another task to carry out: tracing the money.

Ms Valletta recalled how once, in Austria, a ring of 32 people excluding the victims were jailed. But the financial side had not been tackled and just six months later, the criminal ring kicked back into operation.

Following the money trail requires the cooperation of other units such as the economic crime and the cybercrime units and the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit.

“Human trafficking investigations start off with a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. All you have is a little bit of information and you have to see whether it fits into another bit of information,” she said, adding that at times, the judicial aspect could set back the process.

According to the Victims of Crime Act, vulnerable victims can testify via video-conferencing. However, not all magistrates allow this and some victims have to take the witness stand in front of the perpetrator.

Considering the intimacy of the crime and the vulnerability of the victim, this complicates matters, so the prosecution is nowadays focusing more on backing up such testimony with document-based evidence.

However, this is no smooth task and time is not on their side either.

In order to have a watertight case, the prosecution invests a lot of effort into gaining access to black-on-white documentation and financial information beforehand.

But this could take months. Once the court issues an arrest warrant, the police have only 48 hours to detain suspects before escorting them to court.

With all these challenges, what keeps the officers going?

For Ms Valletta it is the survivors, and their gratitude.

Meanwhile, the investigators take into consideration the needs of the victims.

“You cannot put them in limbo. They have their dignity and they are vulnerable.”

The word victim is synonymous with the word vulnerable – starting from their background, which is usually a poor one, to the threats they receive from those who exploit them.

Ms Valletta said the pursuit of sexual human trafficking cases is sometimes questioned because the victim seems to accept clients willingly.

“If she is living with a threat hanging over her head and an order to take a specific number of clients, she would of course do her best and do it with a smile. Some accept that this is their only way of living and surviving.”

What is the typical profile of a trafficked person?

There are various types of human trafficking, including sexual and labour exploitation and domestic servitude, the latter being rather difficult to pin down as it is contained behind closed doors.

There is no typical profile and no one modus operandi. Human trafficking could even start off with a mutual understanding, where the victim knows she would have to provide sexual services. However, she is then deceived into accommodating a large number of clients, locked indoors and exploited for profit.

Human trafficking is a very complex crime and even more lucrative than drug trafficking, according to Ms Valletta. People who want to deal in drugs need the capital with which to buy the substance but in cases of human trafficking (excluding kidnapping) people are even asked for a sum of money upfront.

Human trafficking is often a trans-national crime, with the possibility of the source, transit and destination countries traversing continents.

The local investigators share information with neighbouring countries in a bid to take a proactive, rather than a reactive approach.

Maltese personnel also take part in courses, seminars and training organised by different entities such as Europol and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Reaction to US report that found Malta failing in fight on human trafficking

The local police have asked the publishers of the US Trafficking in Persons Report to provide information that would sustain the claims made in its annual statement.

This would help officers look into and investigate concerns highlighted in the report.

According to the latest report by the US State Department, Malta failed to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking for the sixth consecutive year.

It acknowledges, however, that the island increased its efforts and managed to identify more victims and provide them with shelter and services while funding training for police recruits and officers, border agents and diplomats.

“I’m not saying that we don’t have human trafficking in Malta – I’m not excluding anything. All I’m saying is if you have this information, which I’m interested in, please pass it on to me so that I can investigate,” AC Theuma said, noting that this request was made every year upon publication of the report.