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Working together to better understand the demand for sex services that impact on trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe

Project background

Sex work and its relationship with human trafficking is a contested issue. In the EU, different approaches to sex work coexist, each with national particularities. Scholars disagree on which approach to take, and even whether a relationship exists between legislation and policy on sex work and trafficking in human beings. Despite some advancement, currently too few rigorous studies have been undertaken to be able to draw definitive conclusions.

This project aims to fill this gap. DESIrE aims to generate a better understanding of the impact of different approaches to sex work legislation and policies on the prevalence of trafficking in human beings. DESIrE is particularly focused on four approaches in four different countries: The Netherlands, Croatia, Poland and Sweden. In brief, the Netherlands legalise sex work. The Swedish legislation targets the buyer and thus criminalises the demand side for sex work. In Croatia the sex workers are criminalised. In Poland the approach is somewhere in between.

Is all sex work sexual exploitation? No. This project is based on the presumption that not all sex work is sexual exploitation and a form of trafficking in human beings. Instead, as stated in Directive 2011/36/EU, the project assumes that there is a link between trafficking in human beings and sex work when there is exploitation combined with an action and means element.

The DESIrE project is funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund.

Here is what you can learn from DESIrE:

The agenda set by the international research partners involved in DESIrE includes:

  • How do we understand relevant terms such as Demand, Sexual exploitation and Prevention?
  • What is the relationship between different legislative models – in the Netherlands, Croatia, Poland and Sweden – and their impact on the demand that fuels trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation?
  • What legislative models make sex workers feel more safe?
  • What concrete evidence show that reducing demand for sexual services can be used as a method to prevent trafficking in human beings?
  • What avenues, other than law, may assist in limiting the demand for sexual exploitation?

Project partners

Vrije universiteit brussel (vub)

The Fundamental Rights & Constitutionalism Research Group (FRC) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) focuses on prospective and analytical research in the broad area of constitutionalism and of human rights, understood as legal instruments and capital human values. VUB is coordinating the DESIrE project.

Prof. dr. Paul de Hert
Co-Director, Fundamental Rights & Constitutionalism Research Group, Project Manager
Amy Weatherburn
Researcher & Project Coordinator
Sibel Top
Researcher & Communications Coordinator

Tilburg university

The International Victimology Institute Tilburg (INTERVICT) promotes and executes interdisciplinary research in order to contribute to a comprehensive, evidence-based body of knowledge on the empowerment and support of victims of crime and abuse of power. In the DESIrE project, Tilburg University will perform the analysis of national law and policies on sex work and as such have an important role in the development of the theoretical framework of the project. Together with the other partners Tilburg University will contribute in the data collection of the empirical part of the project.

Prof. Conny Ruken

Professor of Human Trafficking and Globalization, Project Manager

Dr. Esmah Lahlah
Assistant Professor & Senior Researcher
Maria Shaidrova

Uppsala University

The International Maternal and Child Health (IMCH) Unit falls under the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at Uppsala University. IMCH is a leading research and education centre that works for improved global health with special emphasis on women’s and children’s health and nutrition. The education and research programmes address the health challenges in low- and middle-income countries and in humanitarian crises. By developing and evaluating interventions and new strategies for tackling priority health problems, IMCH makes important contributions towards equitable global health.

Dr. Wanjiku Kaime-Atterhög

Researcher & Project Manager

Prof. Beth Maina Ahlberg

Professor of International Health & Project Supervisor

Dr. Anne Kubai

Associate Professor of Interreligious Studies & Researcher

Warsaw University

Since 2006, the Human Trafficking Studies Center (HTSC) is a research and educational institution within Department of Criminology at Warsaw University. The aim of the institution is to fulfill the social need for an independent academic institution that conducts research, offers educational and informative activities related to human trafficking and all forms of slavery. HTSC’s mission is to acquire and disseminate knowledge about human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of slavery. Among several things, HTSC conducts academic research, train law enforcement agencies, other public institutions and engage in international cooperation.

Prof. Zbigniew Lasocik
Head of Human Trafficking Studies Centre University of Warsaw & Project Manager
Dr. Łukasz Wieczorek
Senior Researcher & Executive Coordinator


FLIGHT is a life quality improvement organisation established in 2002 in Croatia (the organisation is known as LET in Croatian). FLIGHT manages programs that provide outreach services for people who use drugs and sex workers, services for single parents, human rights and advocacy, programs and services for youth, and capacity building of Croatian civil society. FLIGHT is mainly focused on street sex work and more than 220 sex workers are covered by FLIGHT’s outreach services.

Iva Jovovic
Social worker & Project Manager
Daniel Brkan
Daniel BrkanResearcher & Lawyer
Marko MIklin
Coordinator of outreach work
Denis Jezdik
Coordinator of outreach work

Project roadmap

Work Package 1

Development of a working understanding of the key terms sexual exploitation, prevention and demand.

Work Package 3

Empirical research to determine the perceptions of sex workers, buyers, law enforcers and the general public as to the diffrent existing laws and policies.

Work Package 5

To provide concrete evidence-based conclusions on whether or not demand reduction is an effective means of prevention and consolidate recommendations for long-term sustainable implementation of measures aimed at the prevention of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, including demand reduction.

Working Package 2

Conceptual mapping of laws and policies addresing sex work in the Netherlands, Croatia, Poland and Sweden. Examing the impact of the diffrent laws on trafficking in human beings.

Work Package 4

Analysis of alternative approaches, including innovative ways to use technology, that can facilitate prevention of trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation.