Trafficking convictions in Sweden: tortuous laws about sex

I suppose in a dictatorship it might be possible to write a law aimed at punishing traffickers where no meaningful evidence was required. Then arrests and convictions could shoot up and prisons be full of men who might or might not have had bad intentions or done anything wrong. But despite the unpleasant rhetoric and complete lack of interest in evidence evinced by some of Sweden’s Gender-Equality Warriors, the Swedish legal system operates as (in)effectively as those in other contemporary democratic-style states. This was made obvious in police comments on the difficulty of convicting men for buying sex and now here on the subject of convicting traffickers.

The story below attempts to explain why there have been so few convictions of traffickers, but the impossibility of getting the law’s wording right is obvious. Legal language is often tortuous, but this quality is exaggerated when it attempts to pin down ultimately indefinable states of mind: Note, in the key paragraph (in green below) the use of coercion, deception, abuse, vulnerable. defencelessness, dependent, improper means, controls, exploit. The meaning of each of these key words changes completely according to context and moment and easily mean different things to migrant (or victim), smuggler (or perpetrator) and rescuer.

The story comes from Ireland, where some legislators who want to penalise the buying of sex sent a delegation to Sweden – which absolutely everybody does, it’s the in thing, but all they usually do is talk to government representatives in Stockholm, who tell them what the visitors could have read online without taking an expensive junket. Note that this entire analysis makes no mention of migration at all, which continues to be the fundamental issue despite protestations that it is not because now we are talking about slavery.

Human Trafficking: Concerns even as Swedish law is rewritten to get convictions, 04 January 2011, Irish Examiner

When one looks at the numbers of successful prosecutions for human trafficking in Sweden over the last five years, one could easily be forgiven for thinking there had been little return for its major investment in combating the crime. Between 2003 and 2008, there were just 10 people convicted specifically of human trafficking out of 133 cases brought. However, the low return is not reflective of the true impact the prosecutions have had. The ambiguous wording of the trafficking law in Sweden up to July 2010 made it exceptionally difficult to get convictions. But the authorities had good reason for not being in a particular rush to correct that ambiguity. The sentences for aggravated pimping — the crime just below human trafficking carried the same maximum sentence of 10 years as the more serious misdemeanour.

A lot of cases end up as serious pimping instead of human trafficking, because it was easier for the prosecutors and court to have a sentence for it,” said Detective Inspector Jonas Trolle of the Swedish surveillance unit who is an expert in investigating human trafficking. “I think it was sad, because our legislation on trafficking in human beings is a very good legislation and has a lot of possibilities to get convictions, but it was too complicated for the prosecutors and courts. Therefore, prosecutors would not push strongly for the highest sentence possible for aggravated pimping.”

When that category is taken into account, the successful prosecutions shoot up. The number of reported crimes rise to 601 and the convictions rise to 127. Nonetheless, it simply was not good enough not to have clear and detailed legislation. The problem was that a successful prosecution for human trafficking required the prosecutors to prove the defendant had taken control of the victim.

“We had two trafficking paragraphs before, which did not work,” said Kajsa Wahlberg. “The second paragraph had so many tiny little things which had to be correct. For instance, it said that the trafficker must use improper means in order to recruit or transport the person but it also said the trafficker must have control. Improper means is very much related to control also. It was mixed up. It also said the trafficker must have the intention at recruitment that he is going to exploit the person.”

She cited, as an example, an instance where a Swedish man trafficked a girl from Slovakia to the southern part of Sweden. “He claimed she was his girlfriend, they had lived there and they decided to move to Sweden,” she said. “He said he proposed for her to go into prostitution and that he recruited buyers for her but that he had no intention to traffic her to Sweden when he took her from Slovakia. He said it was an idea that came up when they got here.

“So many of these types of people got loose because we could not prove intention to traffic. It was also viewed that the second paragraph did not protect children as it should. Because of the confusion, 16-17 year olds were not being regarded as trafficking… The court required directly that the trafficker must have used improper means. The paragraph did not require that.”

In the forward to the new clause which came into the Swedish human trafficking law on July 1, 2010, the authors wrote: “The requisite that describes the improper means should be given in somewhat clearer and more readily-understood meaning than they have at present.” Therefore, the relevant paragraphs were rewritten to state: “Anyone who makes use of unlawful coercion or deception, abuses someone’s vulnerable situation, abuses someone’s youth or defencelessness or abuses someone’s dependent status has used such a means that may result in liability for trafficking in human beings. “The current list of kinds of acts of trafficking covered shall be supplemented by the possibility of a person, who by some improper means controls another in order to exploit her, in him being penalised for trafficking in human beings.”

It is too early to say whether the new language will make it easier to achieve the full human trafficking convictions authorities crave.  As far as Jonas Trolle is concerned, there may still be issues. “I am worried about the situation now,” he said. “They have removed the control part, but I am not sure it is easy to have sentences for human trafficking.” He has reason to be worried. Police estimate that between 400 and 600 women are trafficked to Sweden every year and of those 200 to 300 are destined for Stockholm.

Furthermore, there is concern that even the new version of the law does require the accumulation of a large swathe of evidence before a conviction can be sought. Kajsa Wahlberg admits that that often means victims might be moved on before the police can move in and arrest the trafficker.

“After surveillance for a certain period of time, you might assume there are 30 women being exploited, but you don’t go in and identify them all, because you will reveal your investigation,” she said, “We are not always sure what is going on; if all of these women are being exploited or if they have another role in the apartment. When we strike, there might only be three left because some of them are being transported back and forth and we are not always clear of each and everyone’s role. We can interrogate the three, but we don’t know about the other 27.”

They will keep trying to get this right, though, we can be sure of that.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

4 thoughts on “Trafficking convictions in Sweden: tortuous laws about sex

  1. Maggie McNeill

    This worldwide push among “democracies” to make it easier for laws to convict people (instead of more consistently uncovering the truth) is very depressing. Here in the United States we recently had a high-profile case in which the system did exactly what it was designed to do, namely to free a person against whom prosecutors had insufficient evidence to support their serious allegations. But rather than be happy about that, millions of Americans are demanding an unconstitutional law which would abrogate one of our primary civil rights in order that future prosecutors would be more able to railroad people without sufficient evidence.

    1. Laura Agustín

      yes. the feeling it gives me is that the people who take and keep jobs in government operate under the assumption that they, as representatives of Good, are constantly under seige by the forces of Evil. the government jobs are increasingly about how to capture and punish the bad, who are assumed to be vast and growing in number. so getting criminal laws right, constantly honing them to describe how bad people behave so as to be able to incarcerate them, is fundamental. when the crime involves stealing an object, for example, then the law can be written straight-forwardly. when the crime involves ‘forcing’ someone to do something, though, the law only gets written in a more convoluted and vague way – just the opposite of what is intended. the consolation is that this kind of law is still difficult to convict on.

      1. Maggie McNeill

        This might be supporting evidence for that theory, Laura: Reason magazine recently did a poll ( which found that, though 72% of Americans in the general public believe that a free market economy performs better than an economy managed by the government, 53% of public sector employees believe the exact opposite. This tends to support the idea that people who work in government are largely those predisposed to believing that government is the only thing standing between civilization and criminal and economic chaos.

        1. Laura Agustín

          mm, yes – the world as seen from inside. when a civil-service job means nearly unshakeable security up to and after retirement, with a rationalised system for promotion and higher wages, it’s no wonder that civil servants trust government. not that lots of them won’t be cynical about government, too, but i do believe that the degree of security one enjoys plays a big part in one’s political outlook.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *