There are currently 600 suspected human trafficking victims receiving assistance from authorities in Finland, according to the Finnish Immigration Service, Migri. If suspected victims’ underage children are included, then the number of people receiving assistance in the victim support system rises to 800.
According to the agency, the number of customers receiving advisory services has nearly tripled in recent years and victims themselves are the ones reaching out for help.
"When we talk about human trafficking globally, we are talking about tens of millions of people. We are seeing rising numbers of human trafficking here in Finland, and it is not only linked to immigrants," the head of Migri’s assistance system for human trafficking victims, Jari Kähkönen, said.
He noted that victims usually reach out via the ihmiskauppa.fi website. The majority of them fall into the hands of human traffickers abroad and are sometimes identified during the process of seeking asylum. That process may involve multiple interviews with police, immigration authorities and reception centre officials, during which their status as human trafficking victims may be uncovered.
Since the beginning of the year, officials have received indications that 48 people already resident in Finland have been living in conditions reminiscent of trafficked victims. This is considerably more than in previous such as in 2016, when the number during the same period was 11.
Work without rights
Human trafficking in Finland often involves cases of forced labour, very often in the construction, restaurant and cleaning sectors.
In July this year, prosecutors charged a Lahti restaurant over two suspected counts of human trafficking, assault and extortion-like labour discrimination. The owner allegedly forced two foreign-background employees to work 12-hour days without weekend breaks or holidays. Their pay did not comply with collective agreements for the sector. The case will be tried in the Päijät-Häme district court.
Meanwhile a recent Helsingin Sanomat investigation highlighted Finnish cleaning firms that ruthlessly exploited workers. In those cases, workers toiled almost around the clock without proper breaks or adequate pay. Other instances where foreign workers were subjected to abusive practices have been identified in the berry-picking trade.
Trafficking targets vulnerable individuals
The groups most often assisted by Migri’s human trafficking victims assistance programme include Somalis, Nigerians, Afghans and Iraqis. About 23 Finnish citizens are receiving support in the system.
"In Finland human trafficking has been identified among Finnish drug users as well as in prisons. They are people who are in some way in vulnerable positions and are [therefore] tempting [to traffickers] in many ways," Kähkönen said.
Human trafficking is a form of severe abuse in which the victim has no real chance of escaping. Criminal offences often involve a series of acts that lead to an individual becoming a victim of human trafficking. Victims often end up in a dependent relationship with their captor.
In Finland, investigations into human trafficking are lengthy processes, Kähkönen noted. For example, Helsinki police are currently investigating an extensive human trafficking and sexual offences case in which the main suspect is writer and director Veijo Baltzar. He is suspected of aggravated rape and human trafficking between 2016 and 2019. Formal charges in the case are expected to be laid by November.
There have been very few convictions for human trafficking in Finland. "It needs to be considered whether or not [the offences] bear the hallmark of human trafficking, because in the most extreme cases the maximum sentences are quite harsh," Migri’s Kähkönen said.
The maximum sentence for aggravated human trafficking is 10 years in prison, compared to aggravated fraud for example, where the maximum is six years and two years for extortionate workplace discrimination.
Inadequate resources a problem
Last year, Migri’s human trafficking victim assistance system hired additional staff. However with only a dozen or so people on the payroll, the unit has to assist more than 800 people.
The government has set aside a small additional budget to combat human trafficking but resourcing of the unit is still inadequate in relation to the number of people needing help.
Calls have also been made for increased police resourcing to deal with the problem. Police have said that it plans to set up a separate unit next year to investigate human trafficking.