UK failing to combat human trafficking, slavery: study

British authorities are being blamed for failing to prevent human trafficking, with the victims of sexual exploitation and forced labor often being ignored by law enforcement until they are prosecuted as illegal immigrants

By Toby Helm and Mark Townsend  /  The Guardian

Thu, Mar 14, 2013 - Page 9

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.”

Christian Guy, the center’s managing director, said it was appalling that many of those who fall into modern day slavery were themselves considered criminals.

The 224-page report was written after an investigative team interviewed hundreds of witnesses over 18 months.

“We have been shocked by many of our findings. A leadership vacuum at the heart of Westminster [British parliament]; a messy legislative framework; frontline professionals — however well meaning and brilliant in some areas — forced to swim against a tide of indifference if they wanted to fight this crime; official bodies failing in their duty of care, with little idea about the scale of the problem,” Guy said. “Our research has uncovered a shocking underworld in which children and adults — many of them UK citizens — have been forced into lives of utter degradation. Yet the authorities are either failing to understand the nature of this abuse or turning a blind eye to its existence.”

The investigation found that large numbers of people were being used for forced criminality, including benefit fraud, organized begging, pickpocketing and drug cultivation, with the last frequently involving young Vietnamese on cannabis farms. Yet experts identified a pervading mentality at the Border Agency that victims had often made a choice to be involved in such criminal activities, rather than that they were being exploited.

The report also found large numbers of British girls being trafficked within the UK, mainly for sexual exploitation. In one case, a girl taken into captivity by a group of men was allegedly raped 90 times over the course of a weekend.

Even when rescued from their abusers, the report lamented that the state regularly failed to keep victims safe. The center cites figures showing that 60 percent of children placed in local authority care that are believed to have been trafficked go missing afterward — often because they are so terrified of their traffickers that they take the first opportunity to go back.

In one case which was described to the center, a boy who had been trafficked into the UK and then taken into care disappeared on a visit to the dentist, climbing out of a window to return to his abuser.

“Elements of control in these cases can be subtle and difficult to identify; this control frequently takes the form of sexual and other forms of violence, physical or emotional abuse, threats of violence towards family members,” the report said.

“We simply cannot be satisfied with our current efforts to prevent this vile trade from happening. We have allowed human beings in the UK to be bought and sold as mere commodities for profit, gain or gratification. How on earth have we arrived at a place where there is no ambition or leadership to stamp out this appalling crime?” asked Andrew Wallis, who worked on the report and is the CEO of anti-trafficking charity Unseen.

The study calls on parliament to pass new anti-slavery legislation aimed at requiring companies with turnovers above £100 million (US$149.53 million) a year to publicly disclose the efforts they are making to ensure that their supply and product chains and business practices are free from modern slavery. Similar legislation is in force in California, where it has proved successful at reducing abuse.

The report also hopes to tackle one of the myths associated with human trafficking, namely that it is an international crime overwhelmingly affecting women and children. Of the 2,077 potential victims identified by the UK Human Trafficking Centre in 2011, 40 percent were men.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2013

Some proposals made by the Centre for Social Justice

‧ The post of anti-slavery commissioner should be established to develop independent monitoring and reporting on the UK’s response to the issue.

‧ The UK Border Agency should be removed as a “competent authority” in charge of the government’s system for identifying and protecting suspected trafficking victims.

‧ Responsibility in government for human trafficking and modern slavery should be transferred from the minister of immigration to the minister of policing and criminal justice at the Home Office.

‧ A new modern slavery act should be drafted which outlines the obligation to investigate indicators of slavery.

‧ All police officers should receive training on how to identify victims of human trafficking.

‧ Trainee social workers should be taught about the risks of child trafficking.

‧ Police should be tasked to proactively investigate the links between missing children and child trafficking.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2013

Case studies

Josef’s story

Josef, a 53-year-old Romanian, was working as an electrician in his native country when, in March 2010, he lost his job. Josef traveled to the UK in October that year with other Romanians who promised him work.

Upon arrival, Josef was taken to a house and forced to live in a garden shed, which had no heating or lighting. He was given no food or bedding and had only a hole in the ground for a toilet. While living there, he was forced to work for a Romanian family who owned the shed.

In December that same year, during a party at the house, Josef stood outside a window to beg the guests for food, but was refused. Soon after, two men entered the shed and began kicking and punching him repeatedly. Then they made him eat his own feces and raped him.

In March 2011, Josef escaped and contacted the police. He was kept at a safe location outside London.

Four people were convicted of human trafficking into the UK in relation to the case.

Jasmine’s story

Jasmine was held in Yarl’s Wood Detention Center in Bedfordshire, southeast England, for more than seven weeks before she told a charity that she had been trafficked and forced to work as a prostitute. After attempting to leave the UK, she was arrested on suspicion of possessing a false identity document.

Jasmine was convicted of the offense and sentenced to 12 months in prison. She has since been detained by the Border Agency.

Jasmine told the charity that she was often beaten up by her traffickers and suffered from pain in her legs, hands and shoulders, along with gynecological and stomach problems.