British ministers, the police and social workers have been accused of a “shocking” failure to prevent the spread of modern slavery in the UK, leading to sexual exploitation, forced labor and the domestic servitude of adults and children from around the world.
Describing government ministers as “clueless” in their response to tackling human trafficking into and within the UK, the most exhaustive inquiry yet conducted into the phenomenon concludes that Britain’s approach to eradicating modern slavery is fundamentally wrong-headed. Instead of helping vulnerable victims who are trapped in forms of slavery after being trafficked from overseas, the legal system prosecutes many for immigration offenses.
The major study, which was conducted by the Centre for Social Justice and published on Monday, says that political indifference and ignorance, coupled with a leadership vacuum in the British parliament, has meant that the country that led the way in abolishing slavery in the 19th century is now a “shameful shadow” of its former self as the practice makes a comeback in a contemporary guise.
To restore Britain’s reputation on the issue, the report makes more than 80 recommendations, including appointing an independent anti-slavery commissioner, to ensure proper political focus and new legislation to better protect victims.
Researchers were stunned at the lack of awareness of the problem among officials on the front lines whose job it was to identify and help trafficking victims.
“We have encountered unacceptable levels of ignorance and misidentification of victims among the police, social services, the UKBA [UK Border Agency, responsible for regulating the country’s borders], the judicial system and others,” the report said.
Social workers were “not equipped” to identify victims of modern slavery, it added. One charity described how it was normal for just a couple of hands to be raised when a room of 40 social workers was asked if anyone knew about the national referral mechanism, the government’s system for identifying and protecting suspected trafficking victims.
Police were also found wanting, with officers often choosing to arrest trafficking victims instead of protecting them. One deputy chief constable recalled the case of a girl who had managed to escape from a brothel and flee to a police station where she described how she had been trafficked.
“She had no passport. Under these confusing circumstances, we chose to arrest her for being an illegal immigrant,” he said.
A detective inspector admitted that there was no political encouragement to tackle slavery.
“Human trafficking is not a performance indicator for police. Until it is, there is more incentive to investigate a shed burglar,” he said.
Another officer told researchers: “So what do we do when we find them? We charge them. We nick them. Is that the best victim care?”
Although the government has requested that each force have a senior officer responsible for human trafficking, only half of the 33 forces that responded had appointed one. In addition, 90 percent of police officers ignored an online educational course designed to raise awareness of modern slavery.
Entitled It Happens Here, the center’s study collated evidence of exploitation of foreign adults and children, as well as British citizens, in factories, fields, construction sites, brothels and houses. It identified more than 1,000 cases, but cautioned that official figures remain “a pale reflection of the true size of the problem.”