BY Milad Shojaei
Human trafficking is a grave violation of human rights that impacts almost every country globally. It involves the recruitment, transfer, or receipt of victims domestically or overseas, exploited for personal or financial gain. The Palermo Protocol established the first internationally recognised definition of human trafficking and defines exploitation as; “the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or removal of organs".
In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act) effectively consolidates all existing offences of human trafficking and modern slavery. Although the Act has increased policy activity surrounding slavery and trafficking, the problem remains underestimated in the UK. According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), human trafficking in the UK is a rapidly growing issue and has increased by more than 80% in 2016-2017. Many of those trafficked are overseas, but others are UK-born nationals trapped in vicious cycles of domestic abuse, homelessness, and neglect.
According to UN estimates, approximately 136,000 people were trafficked in the UK in 2018. A report referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) outlined that 61% of potential victims claimed to have been exploited in the UK, while 25% claimed that they were exploited overseas. The report further revealed that individuals trapped in modern slavery in the UK are now increasingly likely to be British than any other nationality.
THE DEVASTATION CAUSED BY TRAFFICKING GANGS OPERATING IN BRITAIN
Many human trafficking gang leaders wanted by law enforcement in Europe reside in the UK. Trafficking gangs prey on a range of vulnerable victims, including children, economic migrants, and refugees. They manipulate people with promises of greater prosperity and opportunity, advertising substantial wages and security assurances. Tricked by false hope and ambitions for a better life, vulnerable migrants discover that the marketed jobs do not exist and inevitably become trapped by “debt bondage”. This tragic reality forces victims of human trafficking to work under duress to pay the debt accrued by accepting the transit.
In July 2019, the UK’s most considerable modern slavery investigation dismantled a human trafficking ring that earned £2-million by exploiting more than 400 people. Led by a well-organised polish gang, the Brzezinksi family forced vulnerable victims to work for almost nothing after luring them to the West Midlands. Investigators have asserted that it was the largest criminal prosecution relating to modern slavery in Europe to date.
Victims of the Brzezinksi trafficking ring were manipulated into believing they would earn reasonable wages in Britain but were instead forced to work long hours on farms, rubbish recycling centres and poultry gutting factories for as little as 50p an hour. The investigation revealed that victims were housed in overcrowded and vermin-infested properties without heating, furniture and working toilets. The victims were aged between 17-60 and treated as commodities, offered nothing but out-of-date food, and no water access during long periods of hard labour.
In some cases, the criminal organisation recruited released prisoners, stripping them of their humanity and dignity while forcing them to endure a life of oppressive deprivation and anguish. Hope For Justice and West Midlands Police exposed the inhuman treatment of victims, revealing that gangs often resorted to violence to motivate victims. Eight gang members were ultimately sentenced for trafficking, conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour, and money laundering. From June 2012 till October 2017, the conspiracy ran as the most prolific and ambitious human trafficking network in the UK. It underlined the horrific and true extent of the human trafficking crisis in the UK. As the Judge in the case, HHJ Mary Stacey stated; “the hard truth is that the practice continues, here in the UK, often hiding in plain sight”.
RISING CASES OF SEX-TRAFFICKING IN THE UK
Sex trafficking is a form of modern slavery where vulnerable victims are coerced into sexual exploitation for profit. Almost 66% of the human trafficking economy is from commercial sexual exploitation, and the global sex trade exploits two million children worldwide. In 2010, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) reportedthat approximately 30,000 women were involved in off-street prostitution in England and Wales and that 2,600 were trafficked. The Home Office estimates that there are up to 4,000 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the UK at any one time.
Sexual exploitation in the UK has increased significantly from 2017-2020. Recent data released through Freedom Of Information requests (FOI) suggest cases rose from 158 in May 2017 to 543 in April 2020. Escaped victims reveal that they are beaten, forcibly injected with narcotics, and pressured to watch their own families' physical abuse. The NRM discovered that the most prevalent type of exploitation for children was sexual, including forced prostitution. Although many children forced into exploitation are from vulnerable backgrounds, the issue of child trafficking is not limited to any particular demographic or socio-economic boundaries. Human traffickers operate at a specialist level, routinely manipulating children and recruiting them by targeting insecurities. Sex traffickers prey on vulnerabilities and use incline classified advertisements and social media platforms to lure and sell young women. In 2017, Michael Miller, a sex trafficker who recruited young girls online and prostituted them in New York, admitted to using Backpage.com to advertise his illegal operations.
Online platforms like Backpage face increasing scrutiny and criminal liability as traffickers move to mainstream social media sites. However, more must be done to prevent human trafficking from thriving on online platforms. Websites should explicitly state in terms of service that any use of the platform to exploitative means is prohibited, and enforced strictly by routinely reviewing user activity. Identifying high-risk users and business pages, coupled with proactive risk checks against national sex offender registries, human trafficking conviction,s and business complaint sites will help isolate suspicious activity.
IMPROVING THE RESPONSE TO TRAFFICKING CRIMES
Siloed law enforcement agencies cannot combat the human trafficking crisis alone. Strengthening coordinated policing efforts has been pivotal to the dismantling of trafficking rings. In 2019, a British and Romanian police operation targeting international human trafficking gangs led to the rescue of 29 women who were victims of sex trafficking. It is imperative that the NCA continues coordination and collaboration across the UK and improves communication with countries where trafficking gangs are based.
It is equally crucial that the voluntary sector, private sector, and the UK's wider Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group work closely together to improve victims' care and enhance the ability to act early. To achieve this, the CPS must continue to strengthen engagement with victims by providing more extensive support and protection to those minded to engage.
Criminal organisations go to great lengths to conceal trafficking from the authorities, however, when victims do surface the process of identifying them as victims of trafficking is challenging. The fear of retribution by gangs and the impact of trauma on memory provides significant “grey areas” which are difficult to navigate. Moreover, a report published by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group identified notable differences between groups in the identification rates as victims of human trafficking. The referral rate for non-British nationals identified as having been trafficked was 11.9%, while 76% were UK citizens. The research indicates that the NRM is potentially endorsing a narrow view of the definition of trafficking, impeding victim identification.
Under the NRM, decisions about who is a victim of trafficking are made by trained specialists in designated competent authorities. Although this system has identified crucial trafficking trends and data, it must become more accessible. As it stands, the system has created a “hierarchy” of victims, enabling discrimination against specific categories of trafficking victims. By allowing more organisations to refer potential victims to the NRM, we can bolster its reliability and achieve a unified data collection system. This will not only assist identifying victims of trafficking but also minimise the risks of re-trafficking, effectively supporting prosecutions of trafficking gangs in the process.