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Human trafficking

June 7, 2011

Four short years ago, Britain reflected upon the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Abolition of Slavery Act. At that time, amidst all the self-congratulatory celebration, I suggested our renewed focus should be on refreshing our resolve in tackling the modern equivalent of slavery: human trafficking.

Last month I was able to initiate a parliamentary debate on this issue and set out the extent of the current day blight (the full debate can be read here). Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transfer and harbouring of men, women and children so that they can be exploited for forced labour, sexual services or domestic servitude here in civilised, twenty-first century Britain. It is this most unpleasant by-product of globalisation in the labour market that now scars constituency urban, suburban and rural throughout the UK. The modern day slaves it has created are voiceless and vulnerable, stowed in the untouched shadows of our society.

The means of this human subjugation are varied. Sometimes there is violence. But traffickers may equally threaten to harm a victim’s family, enslave them through debt, reduce them with shame or manipulate by deception. As elicit ways to make money go, trafficking can be perceived as comparatively low risk. A busy brothel with five to ten girls in London, for instance, can make £20,000 a week without the violence and risk associated with the illicit drugs trade. As for those with even baser motives, trafficked victims outside the established sex trade are attractively difficult to detect.

Whenever we approach a subject such as trafficking, people inevitably demand numbers in order to grasp the scale of the problem. Unfortunately such statistics are hard to come by. Some contend the number of trafficked victims is very low, others that figures have been grossly underestimated. In being an especially covert crime, it is inevitably tricky to measure.

The most recent study on the number of women trafficked into off-street prostitution, Project Acumen, (whose methods have been disputed by some NGOs) suggests that of the 30 000 women currently involved in off-street prostitution, 17 000 are migrants, with 2600 of those believed to be trafficked. The figures we have on other forms of trafficking are far sketchier. The grim reality of their existence tends only to smack us in the face when a case comes before the court or a raid is conducted.

To think of recent examples, we have here in London the grisly ongoing case of a five year old Nigerian boy who was only identified in March as Ikpomwosa, some ten years after his murder. We believe this tiny child was trafficked from Germany before being drugged and sacrificed in a ritual killing, his torso dumped in the Thames. Alongside this case runs that of retired doctor, Saeeda Khan, who stands accused of making a trafficked Tanzanian lady work up to 24 hours a day at her home in Harrow, as well as the recent case successfully brought against the Home Office by a Moldovan lady who was deported back to her home country to face appalling depravity at the hands of her traffickers.

Tackling trafficking is immensely complicated as it touches upon so many parts of our system – policing, immigration, justice, housing, social services. Some readers may have seen in April’s Sunday Times a compelling profile by Bridget Freer of the difficulties facing Paladin, a dedicated team based at Heathrow, tasked with stopping child trafficking through entry points into London.

One of the key problems that we all face in our efforts is that, to be brutally frank, there are no votes in this issue. When budgets are tight, authorities will be far more inclined to direct resources into those problems which give them the most political grief. A spate of burglaries in an area, for instance, will be of far greater concern to the average person than murkier, undetected crimes going on behind closed doors. In short, if we do not go looking for trafficked victims, we can all too easily pretend that they do not exist.

Aside from these broad issues, there are many deep concerns about the effectiveness of our strategy. The UK Human Trafficking Centre has been absorbed into the Serious Organisation Crime Agency (SOCA), a move criticised on the basis that the sheer size of SOCA dilutes the sense of purpose in tackling trafficking. Whether the forthcoming replacement of SOCA with a National Crime Agency will improve matters is yet to be seen.

There are criticisms too of the National Referral Mechanism process by which victims are identified, for the quality of the decisions it has led to, the poor impression that has been given to victims, the lack of an appeals process and its failure to gather comprehensive data on the scale of the problem. Some feel that insufficient resources are directed at policing teams. In April 2009, for instance, the Home Office decided to discontinue funding for the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit. That Unit was the only specialist police human trafficking unit in the country. Others express concern about the lack of a guardianship system for vulnerable children, not least as a significant number of trafficked children go missing from local authority care homes soon after arrival.

The government has declared human trafficking to be a coalition priority and we urgently await a new strategy from the Home Office shortly to step up our efforts in this regard. Home Office Minister, Damian Green, asserted in our debate that the government is rising to the challenge of developing more sophisticated ways of tackling traffickers in the changing landscape of organised crime, while continuing to care for victims.

This a thankless task. Without being able to assess accurately the extent of the problem, it is naturally difficult for any government to be sure of the level and type of resources that are best suited to tackling the issue. Trafficking is also a global problem and therefore requires global co-operation to be stamped out effectively.

We fight a tough battle and this modern scourge is only likely to become ever more prevalent the more interconnected our world. While the flow of victims tends primarily to be from east to west, who knows whether opposite new streams of demand may spring over the coming decades as the east’s economic power bursts forth, with British citizens themselves becoming the commodity. It is time to support the government in sending out a tough message: this shameful trade in human misery will not be tolerated in our free and open society.