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‘Dutch people should take human trafficking more seriously'

Citizens underestimate their role, but they really can make a difference, says legal specialist Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen. Combatting injustice is still the mission of this former National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence against Children. She will deliver the Cleveringa lecture on 26 November.

Why do you think it's important to continue to commemorate Cleveringa's protest speech?

‘Professor Cleveringa's action marked the start of the resistance by Leiden University against the treatment of its Jewish staff. And it is a beautiful speech, so subdued, and yet the anger behind it is so tangible. Cleveringa’s action shows what an individual citizen can do. We often think we're just one of many minor cogs in a big wheel, but I believe that individual citizens can really make a difference in the big social issues. That's what Cleveringa showed and we see the same effect today. One example is the debate on climate change. I would like human trafficking to also be a subject that is driven by society and for which citizens feel responsible. That's what my lecture is about.' 

What will it take to get citizens more involved?

‘There has to be a growing awareness that human trafficking is not just going on elsewhere in the world, but that it is also happening here in the Netherlands. Every year some 1,300 Dutch under-age girls are victims of human trafficking. They are mainly sexually exploited by loverboys. But we also see children who are exploited within the family circle; they come to the Netherlands with their Turkish or Moroccan family members and are forced to work in the household of a family member. The problem is kept well hidden. In one of my last reports as National Rapporteur last year, I pointed out that 37 out of every 100,000 residents of the Netherlands are victims of human trafficking: children and adults. 

‘Citizens need to be properly informed. We can use numbers, data and the stories behind those numbers to tell people about what is going on. What I notice is that the media in the Netherlands are  playing an increasing role in doing this. Around five years ago, at the request of UNESCO, we developed an online programme for journalists. Shortly after that, I and my organisation helped start a minor in Human Trafficking at Leiden's Law Faculty. Human trafficking isn't just an issue of the law, but also has close connections with social and behavioural sciences. I'm looking forward in the coming year to making a contribution in more faculties based on my knowledge of human trafficking and sexual violence against children.'

What can citizens do?

‘Citizens' responsibility is primarily in knowing what is going on, because it is only once you know that you can do something about it, like not buying from manufacturers who engage in human trafficking or exploitation, for example. When people become more aware, they also become more angry, and then they start to look more closely at what they themselves are doing. As an individual, you're not just alone. You are part of a collective of citizens that together can have a big influence.'  

In your last statement as outgoing rapporteur in 2017, you also called on the government to do more. 

‘I think the Dutch approach to tackling human trafficking operates at a very high level, particularly in comparison with other countries. Even so, as long as we're seeing more than six thousand victims of human trafficking every year in the Netherlsands, that approach just isn't enough.’

In that statement you also mentioned the MeToo discussion. You say that complaints are sometimes too readily dismissed.

‘That's right. It's something that I will also mention in my speech at the award of the Jaap Doek award, a prize for the best Leiden master's thesis on child rights worldwide (on 13 December, Ed.). Many, many children and adults experience some form of sexual abuse and all too often it's not taken seriously enough. For example: what's a pat on the bottom - why worry about it? Of course, there are different levels of abuse, but at the same time you can say that the consequences of the offence don't always reflect the seriousness of the offence. My Cleveringa lecture will be about justice, freedom and responsibility, and it's in that light that sexual violence against children can be seen. Just how far does the law go in protecting the rights of these children? To what extent do children with a history of abuse ever have real freedom? Who is responsible? Is it the family, the school, the government?

You are nationally and internationally very active in a range of different pilot schemes and taskforces on human trafficking and sexual violence against children. Where do you get your drive from?

‘I was a children's judge for many years and all the stories I encountered really affected me. All that injustice makes you very angry and anything you can do to try to put things right is really appreciated. In 2011 I was at the presentation of the Joke Smit Prize to Merel van Groningen for her educational project on loverboys. Afterwards, Merel reminded me that I had been her children's judge and had placed her under supervision. She said that I had saved her life because at that time she was under the spell of a loverboy.  As a children's judge, you can make a difference in individual cases. As a rapporteur, you take a more helicopter view of the cases you hear about and I was able to move the approach to human trafficking and sexual abuse in the right direction. I am so grateful that I had the oportunity to do that. These days I have other ways of continuing the fight. As Cleveringa lecturer, I will be giving several guest lectures to Law students and to students of Child and Family Studies  in the minor in Child Abuse. And maybe in other study programmes, too. I am open for all kinds of topics that are related to human trafficking and protecting the sexual integrity of children.'  

Photos: Sean van der Steen
Text: Linda van Putten

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Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen (69 ) is Vice-Chairman of the Victimisation of Human Trafficking pilot of the Violent Crime Compensation Fund. She is also a member of the Expert Advisory Group of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery and of the Supervisory Board of Child Helpline International.  She is also active in the High Level Taskforce to end sexual exploitation in travel and tourism. Her previous positions were: National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children (2006-2017), Vice-President of the Court of The Hague (1995-2014), Children's Judge (1985-1995), Public Prosecutor (1980-1985).

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