Every year up to 120 000 women and children are brought into the European Union by people traffickers. Most are tricked into leaving their homes with promises of a better life. Some are simply abducted. All are destined for exploitation.
Once here, they are forced into prostitution or used as a source of cheap labour by unscrupulous employers, in sectors ranging from domestic work to farming, manufacturing and construction.
Many of these vulnerable people never see a cent for their labours. Too often, their passports are confiscated and they are deprived of their basic rights, held against their will in poor conditions, beaten, sexually abused, or subjected to other degrading treatment.
Worldwide, the figure is even higher. Although it is difficult to gather accurate statistics, because the victims cannot, or do not want, to reveal themselves to the authorities it is believed that millions of people are trafficked every single year, making human trafficking the fastest growing form of international organised crime.
Yet despite the terrible human cost to its victims, trafficked people are frequently treated as criminals or unlawful aliens when they come to the attention of the authorities.
Too often their ordeal is confused with ‘people smuggling’, where migrants pay middlemen to bypass border controls and enter the European Union illegally.
As such, non-nationals without rights to residence in the country in which they are found are given little or no access the justice system and are simply deported back to their home countries with little or no assessment of the risks they may face.
Where assistance is given, it is often made conditional on victims cooperating with the police to locate their traffickers, which can put both them and their families in grave danger.
For all our talk of fundamental rights, it is rare that victims of trafficking are given access to the support they need to overcome their ordeal.
As a result of these short-sighed strategies, the psychological, medical and social consequences of trafficking, not to mention the underlying root causes, are never addressed.
And for every trafficker put behind bars, there are many more willing to take the risk. Indeed, reports suggest that some criminal gangs are making the switch from drugs to human beings, in search of higher profits at lower risk.
This makes it more important than ever to tackle this problem in a holistic and humane manner taking into account the needs of the victims and the factors which encourage trafficking in the first place - a major departure from current practice.
The entry into force of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings on 1 February 2008 will mark a major step forwards by committing participating states to criminalise trafficking, not the victims of trafficking.
However to date only fourteen Council of Europe Member States are party to this Convention, of which six - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova and Norway - are non EU members, while thirty three are yet to ratify.
If the European Union is serious about its desire to promote and protect fundamental rights throughout the world it is imperative that all countries ratify and implement this convention without delay.
You can pressure our leaders to do so. Sign the petition to stop the traffik - with any luck millions of signatures will be presented to the UN in less than two weeks time - and raise awareness of this terrible crime against humanity.