Home » Research » Old problems, new problems – how the Government sees trafficking in the UK today

Old problems, new problems – how the Government sees trafficking in the UK today

On 18th October 2012, UK Anti-trafficking Day, the Inter-departmental Ministerial Group (IDMG) on human trafficking, published the first annual UK trafficking assessment report.  There was extensive media coverage of the report, replete with echoes of self-congratulation: the UK Government was taking the issue of trafficking seriously and deftly addressing the challenges faced.  Positively, IDMG’s report is thorough, perhaps due to the high levels of access to data held by police and immigration, and provides an assessment free of hysteria and emotional hyperbole.  However, as established by the Council of Europe and the US State Department, the UK’s response to human trafficking has sometimes been inconsistent.  For instance, as Georgina Perry showed in her evaluation of the UK’s response to trafficking and the Olympics, accelerated levels of hype can often belie the reality on the ground.   We were interested in what the Government had to say for itself and, considering the levels of access and the thoroughness of the report, whether any light would be shed on under-researched areas of trafficking.  While the report is not blazing any new trails here, there were four aspects of the report which grabbed our attention.

Firstly, tied with what we have advocated in Singapore, the UK has recognised the need to invest in new forms of frontline responses to trafficking; acknowledging the fact that these responses are not limited to a port of entry.  The report describes:

 A new initiative to help cabin crew spot signs of human trafficking was developed by the Home Office and Virgin Atlantic … The work included the development of a special training package to help crew identify those who may be engaged in trafficking and their potential victims and establishing a 24-hour confidential line so airline concerns can be reported to Border Force before the plane lands in the UK. … The training has now been rolled out to Virgin Atlantic and Thomas Cook cabin crew staff. With the help of other airline partners, the Home Office is looking to add another component to the UK’s national and worldwide efforts to identify and end human trafficking… (p. 51)

Unfortunately, there is no further comment as to whether this initiative was successfully implemented or details as to how many cases have been reported and intercepted by this programme, nor if any evaluation of the project has been undertaken.  However, it is important to take into account similar initiatives outside the UK which may inform potential areas of concern.  In New York, a bill signed in June will require taxi drivers to complete an educational program about sex trafficking violations, supposedly enable them to identity suspected trafficking victims and punish those who knowingly work with traffickers.  While this acknowledges the role played by some taxi drivers in sex trafficking via the transportation of victims, the use of ‘amateur’ detectives lacks an enforcement mechanism and potentially endangers those who are sex workers by choice.

Secondly, the report recognises the importance of the UK as both a destination and transit country.  These two constructs require similar but slightly different identification and intervention criteria, and it is important that this is differentiated in the training of frontline officers, for example, in the police and immigration.  For instance, the report finds an established route between Scotland and Northern Ireland for victims of both sexual and labour exploitation and indicates that a range of transport options are being used (e.g. direct European flights, internal UK flights, ferry/sea ports as well as public transport across the Irish border).  This necessitates a focused attention on domestic ports of entry and transfer in addition to utilising data filtering systems held by airlines/ferry companies to establish if there are particular patterns which arise in the movement of trafficked people, and indeed traffickers themselves, which could contribute to prevention efforts.  This comes with the caveat that any such data collection must be proportionate, in other words, any interference with a Convention right, here the rights to rights to privacy, non-discrimination and freedom of movement,  must be proportionate to the intended objective to the aims of such an initiative and respect the Human Rights Act.

Thirdly, in relation to Northern Ireland, the report found that: “Trafficking victims have been identified as working in brothels throughout Northern Ireland and it is not uncommon to have a mix of trafficked and non-trafficked women working together.” (p. 76)  This leads to a host of questions about how this intelligence was acquired: Who distinguished “victims” from sex workers? Are non-trafficked women reporting cases of trafficking? If not, what is inhibiting possible reporting of this trafficking? What mechanisms exist or should be developed to enable non-trafficked sex workers to engage with the criminal justice system to highlight cases of abuse?  The judgment in the case of Rong Chen, a Chinese national convicted of a range of offences including trafficking and prostitution in Northern Ireland, may give us a clue – it notes that there were other women present in the brothel, but:

[the victim] was isolated in the house for the rest of her time in Northern Ireland.  She was even isolated from women working as prostitutes for a number of reasons including the fact that […]Rong Chen told her not to speak to them.  There were also language difficulties. (para 16)

We argue that developing good practice to address sex trafficking in Northern Ireland would benefit from working positively with local sex workers.  Effective public awareness about the signs of trafficking combined with provisions for accessible, non-judgmental and non-threatening methods for sex workers to speak out when they suspect cases of abuse are some ways of ensuring a more targeted intervention.  This all comes with the caveat that responsibility to address sex trafficking should not rest on sex workers; rather sex workers, as members of the public, may have specific, useful information to offer.  Collaboration between non-coerced sex workers and the police is a thorny topic.  Given the added difficulties of successful and productive engagement between the police and some communities in Northern Ireland, this ensures that effective relationship building on this issue may take considerable time.

Reports like IMDG’s are useful to researchers as they draw out information inaccessible to those without relevant security clearance or access (see our previous post on transparency and FoI).  Thorough information gathering can often bring hidden issues to light, challenging the existing trafficking narrative.  For example, the report found that the top source country for Northern Ireland was the UK, followed by Ghana and China.  Interwoven with this is the fact that, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, the sole type of exploitation of children found in Northern Ireland is sexual.  Highlighting the internal trafficking of local girls for sexual exploitation, the report found:

It is not unusual for vulnerable victims to be targeted and there is an issue with internal trafficking for sexual exploitation of older teenage girls who have been coerced by older males posing as their boyfriend. In many cases these girls have been in local authority care. (p 62)

This latter sentence illustrates an issue of particular concern when considering the recent convictions in Rochdale, which found that a number of young female victims were in local authority care at the time of their exploitation.  This also challenges the existing trafficking narrative in Northern Ireland, which is primarily concerned with the trafficking of women from outside the UK for sexual exploitation.  It is also interesting considering, for example, the rise of the trafficking of children in England and Wales for cannabis cultivation.

Returning to the Northern Ireland context, little is said in the report about whether young girls trafficked in Northern Ireland include those from the Republic.  Considering the fluidity of movement across the border, and the family, educational, employment and other ties which exist across the Island of Ireland, it seems odd that young Irish girls are not also considered to be at risk from island-wide trafficking between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

While this report provides a solid basis from which to explore the state of human trafficking in the UK, by, for example providing some useful data which can be used to better inform policy development, it does not really delve into how effectively the UK is addressing trafficking.  A better source would be the Council of Europe’s evaluation of the UK’s response to trafficking by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, for example.

However, anti-trafficking work, as with all programmes impacted by Government spending in the UK, is under pressure to cut costs.  Indeed, cuts have already been made to the Gangmaster Licensing Authority.  Parallel to the IDMG’s publication, the Guardian reported that the Metropolitan Police’s human exploitation and organised crime command (SCD9) was to be cut.  A subsequent amendment to the story noted that “The future of the unit is uncertain but decisions on its overall fate have yet to be made”.  A phrase which though vague, sounds oddly ominous.  There is a clear need for the strategic use of Government resources to address trafficking.  In this respect, an evaluation of the training programme for cabin crew, so that the Home Office can assess the merits of expanding this programme for instance, would be welcome.  This report should function as a method of highlighting good practice, informing policy development and assessing if resources are being wisely spent.  As it is, little justification for the cuts highlighted above can be found in this report, suggesting a disconnect between the process of resource allocation and the development and implementation of anti-trafficking activities.

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1 Comment

  1. […] the lack of concrete information available on trafficking, the low conviction rate, the obsession with sex trafficking and the need for greater transparency by […]

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