A Look at Human Trafficking Action in the UK

This article was written by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the UK’s Immigration Advice Service.

Photo by Sylvan Kalviac on Unsplash

This January, the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month encouraged human rights organisations from across the world to come together and fight for the millions of vulnerable people impacted each year by this issue. Despite the efforts of non-profit organisations like Free for Life International, who work to prevent human trafficking and rescue and restore victims and survivors, the Coronavirus pandemic has only amplified the exploitation of vulnerable people. Many professionals now predict that the new risks created by the pandemic will only exacerbate the crisis further. 

Whilst concerns of a deeper crisis emerge, we are still left with the inadequacies in the current system which is riddled with failures to detect victims and prevent instances of trafficking. A recent study revealed that despite Britain being home to at least 100,000 modern slaves, around 90% of the official number could still be going undetected. The Modern Slavery Act was introduced in the UK in 2011 after an inquiry conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission discovered that the police and immigration authorities failed to recognise thousands of trafficked men, women and children as victims of organised crime, instead treating their circumstances as illegal immigration, crime enforcement matters or sexual offences. The ways that human trafficking and smuggling are defined are partly to blame for such drastic failures, with their definitions perpetuating misconceptions surrounding these practices leading to a monumental failure to detect and prevent victims. 

Trafficking vs. Smuggling

Our current understanding of the terms “trafficking” and “smuggling” originate from the protocols of the United Nations, known as the Palermo protocols. The primary distinction between these terms, according to UN protocols, is exploitation. According to these definitions, “trafficking” is defined as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

And the concept of “people smuggling” is defined as:

“The procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”

Ultimately, the failure of these definitions falls on their inability to recognise exploitation in the practice of people smuggling. The protocol’s failure to address this means that thousands of vulnerable people, who’s exploitation begins with smuggling and the false promise of a new life where they can live and work in the UK, are either criminalised or undetected by the law. This criminalisation was seen most recently in an increase in the number of channel crossings in 2020, which saw the Government brand many potential trafficking victims as “illegal immigrants”.

10 Years Later, Work Still Remains

However, ten years on from the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, human trafficking continues throughout the UK and the rest of the world, with thousands of victims remaining undetected or criminalised for their suffering. According to the National Crime Agency’s National Referral Mechanisms statistics, nationals from the UK, Albania and Vietnam were the most commonly reported potential victims and in 2018, 6993 potential victims were reported to the national referral mechanism, a 36% increase from 2017. As trafficking continues throughout the country, the UK government has come under fire for its failures to prevent it. In November 2020, a judge determined that the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel failed to follow her own anti-trafficking policy. The judge noted that “the home secretary is acting unlawfully in curtailing asylum screening interviews by asking a narrower set of questions than those that are identified in the published policy guidance.” 

It is clear that a firmer commitment to tackling trafficking and smuggling must be taken by the government, particularly now that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the risks of exploitation. Andrew Wallis, the Chief Executive of Unseen UK, has warned that with “Covid-19 and the economic downturn we are going to see an increase (in human trafficking to the UK) because as the economy shrinks and as people become more vulnerable, the risk of exploitation increases”. As employment prospects diminish and opportunities fall away, people become more likely to fall victim to trafficking schemes that promise better prospects in the western world. A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also discovered that the pandemic is creating more hindrances in the identification and protection of victims of trafficking. As countries maintain their focus on the management of the pandemic, support services for victims remain sparse and a reduction in movement, key to trafficking, has reduced the chance of victims being identified, leaving many to remain in exploitative situations. 

The failures of the UK Government to tackle this issue with conviction, and an environment of poverty and diminished opportunities created by the pandemic, have bred the perfect storm for trafficking to continue, and for victims to remain vulnerable to further exploitation. Without meaningful commitments from governments and immigration services, the pandemic is only expected to exacerbate existing failures in the system.

COVID-19 & Human Trafficking