Parliament passed amendments to Penal Code criminalizing human trafficking on Wednesday - thereby relieving Estonia from the dubious title of being the only EU country to lack an anti-trafficking law.
Last year, the United States put Estonia on its trafficking watchlist, alongside Belarus and Russia, for procrastinating on a law that has now been two years in the making. The Justice Ministry has hurried to bring their legislation in line with that of the EU and the US by April to avoid being watchlisted again.
Michelle Schohn, a spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Estonia, told the Associated Press that trafficking offenders are rarely sentenced to prison in Estonia. A US report has named Estonia as a source, transit, and destination for forced prostitution.
In 2010, authorities discovered 57 victims of human trafficking in Estonia, where domestic prostitution accounts for most incidents. A human trafficking help line established by the local nonprofit Living for Tomorrow receives around 50 calls per month, the organization has said.
The Justice Ministry has said that the new legislation facilitates better coordination among prosecutors, police and judges. The Penal Code was amended by the addition of three sections that cover internationally-condemned forms of human trafficking: sexual exploitation, slavery and removal of vital organs. It also outlines stiffer sentences, and in some case the punishments are more severe than the EU directive sets forth.
But critics have said the new legislation does not go far enough, and have questioned whether the bill was written with the trafficking victims or Americans in mind.
Earlier this week, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, said the new legislation does not take into account the vulnerability of victims, which is a key element in tackling the problem. Hammarberg said that Estonia should ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which stipulates that all trade in humans is a crime whether the victims are forced into it or participate voluntarily.