I welcome this government’s commitment to tackle human trafficking. The new Anti-Slavery Bill and announcement to introduce tougher sanctions is a step in the right direction. However, a lack of harsh penalties is not the chief reason that traffickers feel invincible.
We need to be able to identify victims in the first place. My new report, Shadow City – Exposing Human Trafficking in Everyday London, found that we are hopeless at this. The myth of thousands of padlocked Eastern European virgins forced to work in brothels makes us blind to most trafficking cases taking place.
The first myth is the victim’s ‘innocence.’ Most victims in some way consent to their exploitation and many voluntarily participate in illegal activity. Many charities are uncomfortable to admit this. But by being transparent about this fact I am not saying their exploitation is acceptable. What it demonstrates is that, when authorities meet victims of trafficking, they don’t recognise them because they don’t fit the expected mould.
The second myth is that they are Eastern European, in brothels and involve gangs. Fixating on any idea is dangerous as trafficking models are fluid and change all the time. But the police have always focused on large organised criminal networks – and brothels fit that model. This may explain why police found only 36 of the 389 cases identified this year in London, since the majority of cases are not organised, but take place in residential settings and involve someone the victim knows. This means we miss adults and children in domestic servitude, or British and migrant women and children trafficked within homes for sex and pornography by ‘boyfriends’ and ‘husbands’. These traffickers are not criminal gang leaders but mothers, council workers, pastors and other respectable community members. No police brothel raid will find them. Yet victims may come into regular contact with neighbours, churches and professionals. But many teachers and social workers don’t recognise them as victims. British victims are particularly likely to be disregarded – almost three fifths of social workers thought you had to cross a border to be a trafficking victim.
Male victims are also overlooked. The Mayor’s crime strategy currently only sees trafficking as an issue falling under the ‘Women’s agenda’. A significant oversight when data reveals that they the Salvation Army has seen more victims of labour trafficking than sex trafficking. But while London has been used as a recruiting ground to find homeless men for labour trafficking for years, a senior police officer told us this issue was based on “rumour.” Yet Scandinavia has considered the UK a source country for this type of trafficking for half a decade. We also ignore the sexual grooming of boys, handling the issue similarly to how we used to handle the abuse of girls. Yet the proportion of male victims in sexual exploitation cases in London jumped from 3% to 13% between 2010 and 2012.
Lack of victim focus
The other challenge is the lack of a victim-focused approach. To obtain convictions, we must encourage victims to report and participate in the legal process. Evidence suggests we are doing the opposite.
Even after the high-profile Leighton Buzzard case, where British and European men were labour trafficked by traveller families, a man trafficked by a traveller family was turned away from three police stations in London. Furthermore, African and Vietnamese victims are disproportionately rejected as victims of trafficking. They are often seen as illegal immigrants playing the system or are even treated as criminals. Raids on cannabis farms have led to many Vietnamese child victims of trafficking being prosecuted for drug cultivation; yet their traffickers emerge unscathed.
Not only do we discourage victims from working with the judicial system, but this lack of victim care actually re-creates trafficking. Raids on restaurants or brothels usually involve no follow-up with those working on the premises, who tend to end up in more underground, dangerous work as a result. Moreover the lack of support for victims, after the Government’s statutory 45-day reflection period provision, is almost non-existent. The dearth of services results in there being a ludicrous cycle of trafficked people escaping, and then subsequently being re-trafficked. With men, this is even more pronounced since the few services that do exist in London to support victims of trafficking, after the 45 days, only assist women.
We must see human trafficking through new eyes. Tweaking laws unfortunately does not go far enough when there is so much ignorance and bad practice. It took 21 Chinese cockle-pickers to drown at Morecambe Bay in 2004 for action to be taken to protect those in the agricultural sector. I hope it will not take such extreme circumstances to provoke a response to the types of trafficking I have discussed above.