By Magdalena Mis
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leading financial institutions in Europe have joined an offensive to fight human trafficking by using data to spot irregular banking transactions that could identify criminal activity, organizers said on Tuesday.
The initiative involving banks and the European Union's policing agency Europol aims to help financial institutions develop 'red flag' indicators to scan their systems for suspicious transactions and then alert the police.
The move comes amid rising concerns about human slavery growing into a multi-billion pound business in Europe, run by increasingly sophisticated gangs exploiting the EU policy of free movement for its people.
"As trafficking becomes more complex we have to ... build a broader alliance of institutions that will fight back and bring an end to modern slavery," Europol director Rob Wainwright told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We see the problems getting much worse in terms of number of victims, illegal money that is being used, and the way in which organized crime groups are using more sophisticated techniques to recruit people, transport and exploit them."
The European Bankers Alliance, launched on Tuesday, follows on from the success of a similar group set up in 2012 in the United States by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance that was spearheaded by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The U.S. Bankers Alliance led to the publication of international guidance to help the financial industry identify and report transactions linked to trafficking and sparked a spike in the number of reports of suspicious activity.
Human trafficking has become a fast-growing crime worth about $150 billon a year, according to the International Labour Organisation, with an estimated 36 million people trapped in sex slavery, forced or bonded labour, or other forms of servitude.
Women and girls make up 80 percent of identified victims in the EU.
Wainwright said free movement of people in Europe made it tougher for police to spot people trafficked from one country to another as they arrive at their destination legally.
But he said access to data that the financial institutions would agree to share with Europol would help the agency identify potential traffickers and more effectively bring them to justice.
Financial institutions to join the initiative include Barclays Bank, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Santander, UBS, MasterCard and Western Union.
"I've no doubt this will lead - as it has done in the United States - to more cases being brought to the attention of the police and more successful prosecutions," Wainwright said.
He said the launch this week was just the start of an ongoing process for banks, Europol and the Thomson Reuters Foundation to work together to find ways to identify and stop trafficking.
(Reporting by Magdalena Mis, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)