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EU investigates human trafficking at EMPACT hackathon

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This September, 85 European Union investigators coordinated with EU authorities, including Interpol and Europol, to gather intelligence on human trafficking at the 2023 EMPACT Traffic in Human Beings (THB) Hackathon in the Netherlands. The research focused on online recruitment, especially of Ukrainian and Chinese victims. It also explored how technological innovation can advance investigations.

“Today, the Europol Innovation Lab experienced a productive session at the EMPACT THB Hackathon, expertly organized by the Dutch Police,” announced Jeremy Kespite, innovation liason officer at Europol’s Innovation Lab. “We shared some invaluable tips and tricks for OSINT investigations using the powerful tools from the Europol Tool Repository.”

The EU’s push against human trafficking

This year’s hackathon focused on THB victims exploited for labor and sex and investigated online platforms for child sexual abuse. It also introduced a machine learning (ML) powered tool for identifying THB victims on social media and a searchable database for identifying victims and suspects.

The three-day event was the second in-person THB hackathon organized under the EU’s European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT), which seeks to target serious and organized crime in the European Union. Two others in May and September 2022 brought together 14 EU countries to investigate the online presence of human trafficking. 

The hackathons are part of a wider series of initiatives under EMPACT, whose 2022 actions against THB resulted in over 400 arrests and the identification of more than 4,000 victims.

Between 2022-2025, the platform’s priorities are:

  • High-risk criminal networks
  • Cyber attacks
  • Trafficking in human beings
  • Child sexual exploitation
  • Migrant smuggling
  • Drugs trafficking
  • Fraud, economic, and financial crimes
  • Organized property crime
  • Environmental crime
  • Firearms trafficking

Although these priorities are listed separately, the crimes often overlap. THB can be connected to child sexual exploitation and even migrant smuggling, and the groups that engage in THB are frequently involved in other crimes, such as money laundering, fraud, and drug trafficking. They may even exploit trafficked humans, including children, to commit these crimes.

For example, in 2022, EMPACT found that Latin-American organized crime groups trafficked humans for prostitution and resorted to financial crimes to further their aims.

On October 5, the EU drafted a law to protect trafficking victims from reproductive exploitation, illegal adoption, and forced marriage – cutting off these revenue sources from organized groups that traffic humans. The draft legislation would protect THB victims coerced into criminal activity from prosecution, offering them support even if they don’t help investigations. The law – currently making its way through the EU Parliament – would also criminalize the use of trafficked persons’ services.

How firms can combat human trafficking 

Human trafficking is a serious precursor to financial crimes, which in turn can enable ongoing human rights violations. It’s crucial for financial institutions to recognize THB risks according to their specific risk factors. 

According to a comprehensive guide by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, firms should first evaluate overall client risk by country and industry, then establish increased monitoring for high-risk clients. At-risk clients exhibiting patterns shared between licit and illicit scenarios may warrant further investigation – but low-risk customers exhibiting the same activity might not raise as much concern. With this in mind, some risk indicators firms can look for include:

  • Money laundering indicators, such as multiple transfers to the client account from different sources that are then transferred in bulk to another account.
  • Business clients not showing expected payroll expenses from their bank account.
  • Significant wage deductions with excessive fees or costs cited by the employer.
  • Repeated cross-border transfers with no clear business purpose to countries at high risk for THB.

Additional red flags can be found in the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency’s (FinCEN) 2014 and 2020 advisories on identifying and reporting human trafficking and related activity. Teams can also consult THB money laundering indicators in the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada’s (FINTRAC) 2021 human trafficking operational alert.

In September 2023, the Council of Europe helped organize a roundtable on the role of financial institutions in fighting human trafficking. It highlighted a comprehensive guide for financial investigations into THB as a crucial resource. 

A Guide to AML for Cross-Border Payments & Remittance

Human trafficking can be involved in cross-border financial activity. How can firms that offer cross-border payment services ensure a robust AML program?

Get the full guide

Originally published 19 October 2023, updated 08 February 2024

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