The National Crime Agency (NCA) has reported that human trafficking in the UK is “far more prevalent than previously thought.” With the Home Office estimating between 10,000 and 13,000 current cases, the NCA suggests that these cases are affecting “every large town and city in the country.” However, even these thousands of cases have been suggested to merely be the “tip of the iceberg.”
Will Kerr, the NCA’s Vulnerabilities Director, warns that trafficking into modern slavery is now so widespread that ordinary people are likely unwittingly coming into contact with victims every day. Although trafficking is often associated with women forced into prostitution, modern slavery spans many different industries meaning that there is no typical victim. They can be people of any gender and age, but this form of exploitation (like most) is more prevalent among minorities and socially-excluded groups.
Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania, and Poland are the most likely countries of origin, but some victims are from the UK itself.
Modern slavery is a global issue, with more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history. The British government is said to be taking “world-leading action” to tackle this.
One major tool in the fight against trafficking is the Modern Slavery Act. The first of its kind in Europe, it became law in 2015 and states that an offence is committed if someone holds another in slavery or servitude or requires them to perform forced or compulsory labour. More importantly, it requires all public authorities to notify the Secretary of State or relevant authority if it has “reasonable grounds to believe that a person may be a victim of slavery or human trafficking.”
Sarah Newton, Under-Secretary of State for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism, has said that the Conservative government has “taken world-leading action to tackle [slavery], giving law enforcement agencies the tools they need, toughening up sentences, increasing support for victims and encouraging more to come forward.” She said the government also funded a specialist victim care contract, delivered by the Salvation Army, for victims.
Prime Minister Theresa May has also spoken out against modern slavery, calling it “the greatest human rights issue of our time” in an article she wrote for The Sunday Telegraph in 2016.
The Act has already done much to improve awareness of the issue. Tamara Barnett, from the Human Trafficking Foundation, said she believed that the rise in the number of reported cases of human trafficking may be down to an increased understanding of what constitutes modern slavery. She attributes this increase in awareness to the Act. However, she added that more training and funding is needed to improve awareness and provide better long-term support for victims.
So is enough being done? The number of people reported as potential victims of slavery and human trafficking in the UK more than doubled between 2013 and 2016. The UK’s anti-slavery Commissioner has said the police are failing to investigate alleged cases of modern slavery due to “chronic weaknesses in crime recording.” His first annual report indicated that, at best, 28% of referrals in England and Wales were recorded as crimes last year. This means that there are “too many gaps” for victims to fall through.
The Labour Party has said that the police need better funding if they’ll be able to tackle slavery. Sarah Champion, former Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse, said government cuts to police forces and local authorities have undermined efforts to tackle slavery.
She said: “We must be doing more to prevent this horrendous crime, but looking at [Theresa May’s] track record as home secretary, I’m not optimistic.”
She also cited figures from 2015: 982 children were identified as victims of modern slavery and taken into local authority care, but within days 60% had gone missing. It is presumed that they were back with their traffickers.
It’s clear, then, that there is a lot more that needs to be done, both by a government whose inaction could render it complicit in a terrible crime, and by citizens who can look out for signs of modern slavery in their day-to-day lives.
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