Home » Criminal Justice » When Travellers traffick – the debate on race, criminality and policing

When Travellers traffick – the debate on race, criminality and policing


The UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) found in its Baseline Assessment on the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2011, 38 victims, all male, of trafficking for labour exploitation by the “UK Traveller” community.  These victims worked, according to the UKHTC report, laying tarmac and paving stones.  UKHTC also indicated that there were 104 potential victims, i.e. those yet to be formally declared victims, of this kind of exploitation by Travellers, of which the majority were British.  Media reports claimed that individuals in these trafficking cases were often homeless, sometimes with alcohol or drug problems. They were promised well-paid employment; instead subjected to long working hours and substandard living conditions with no or little pay and the threat of violence.

Interestingly, the report notes that these victims were “almost exclusively adults” but does not further delve further into the exploitation of the children present, as implied by the report.  The UKHTC’s reference to the “UK Traveller community” is also rather vague.  Gypsies, Roma and Travellers of Irish Heritage are recognised as a distinct ethnic minority in UK law, under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.  According to the Irish Traveller Movement website:  “Their sense of common identity, their history, their nomadism or at least the principle of nomadism, the central role of the extended family and their own language are important features of their ethnicity.”  This group is also one of the most marginalised in British society, facing on-going challenges in their ability to access health services, education, employment and housing.

The cases found by the UKHTC resonate with the findings of a Swedish anti-trafficking report from 2010, which found that the 26 cases of trafficking for purposes other than sexual exploitation featured, in particular, “British and Irish tarmac and paving layers in Sweden”.  Though the report does not comment on the ethnic origin of the perpetrators; this connection was made to Travellers, it appears, by the media, based on the fact that tarmac/paving laying is a job undertaken by this group.  The Swedish story was followed by UK reports in September 2011 of a raid by Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire police on a Traveller’s caravan site in Leighton Buzzard which found a number of men kept in horrible conditions for the purposes of labour exploitation and “were thought to have worked from 7am until 7pm most days, performing a range of gruelling manual jobs including asphalting.”

The involvement of highly mobile minorities in trafficking is not an issue found only in the UK.  The role of the Bedouin, a semi-nomadic ethic group found across the Middle East, in people smuggling into Israel, including cases of trafficking, was confirmed in a court case in 2012.  Victims of these trafficking perpetrators also stated that during their transportation by the Bedouin, they had been subjected to rape and abuse.  The brutality of the transit over the Israeli-Egypt border, through the Sinai desert, is an established issue in Israel, with cases of refugees and asylum seekers being held hostage for extortionate ransom, subject to torture and, in some cases, organ extraction.  The potential for the corruption of Egyptian border guards, the Bedouin’s in-depth knowledge of the Sinai, and their links with Israeli organised crime, have created the conditions for this minority to play a role in developing human trafficking routes into Israel.  A 2013 report by the UN Refugee Agency highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by Eritreans as they made their way to Sudan and Egypt, a stepping stone before further movement to Israel, and showed the opportunities for trafficking which exist.  The opportunity for an increase in both numbers trafficked and those vulnerable to being trafficked in the region by seems set to increase, the result of the growing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa which have led to the greater movement of people.  Here Erika Feller, UN Assistant High Commissioner (Protection) noted in late 2012 that: “In the Sinai, buying and selling of human cargo is a growing plague.”  Most recently, a gruelling BBC radio programme further explored this issue and echoed the catalogue of torture, trauma and death in this context.

These scenarios speak to a very particular kind of trafficking; that carried out by groups of highly mobile individuals.  The phenomenon also raises difficult questions about the treatment of minorities by states and how this impacts the response to trafficking by these groups.  Roma, Gypsies and Irish Travellers and the Bedouin share a number of common characteristics: familial and social links over a number of international borders, a history and contemporary experience of semi-nomadic or at least a transient and fluid sense of settlement, and marginalisation and discrimination, both at the hands of society and the state.  These factors, significantly, leave these groups both at risk of being trafficked and well placed as trafficking facilitators.  It points to the need for states to move beyond the idea of trafficking being perpetrated by international connected yet static syndicates, in a style akin to the mafia, and consider the fluid nature of the traffickers themselves.  Mobility as an issue is more often discussed in terms of a migration framework of victims, rather than perpetrators.  This mobility also makes the detection and prevention of trafficking carried out by these groups problematic.  However, this also highlights another issue – how to engage effectively in the prevention and prosecution of this crime under these particular circumstances.

Travellers and the Bedouin, in common with many minorities, have been the subject of extensive discrimination and prejudice regarding a range of rights, including housing, healthcare, education and citizenship.  Often, this prejudice is reinforced by the media.  The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB) complained to the BBC about the nature of their report into the allegations of trafficking in Europe perpetrated by Travellers.  The nature of their objection was that the report criminalised a whole community on the basis of unproved allegations of a tiny minority.  In a subsequent submission to the Leveson Inquiry (a public inquiry set up to investigate links between the media and police), serious concerns were raised about the media coverage of the raid in Leighton Buzzard, particularly that it was biased and prejudicial to the pending trial.  The arrests and associated media reporting came relatively soon after the unpopular eviction of a large number of Travellers from a site at Dale Farm in Essex. Both fed into an ongoing narrative of Travellers and criminality combined with constant reference by the police in the media to the ethnicity of the defendants.

The intersection between race and criminality is complex and often contentious, as the convictions of nine Asian men in Rochdale showed.  Here, allegations were made that it was due to the fact that the perpetrators were older Asian men, and their victims were young white women, that victims were ignored. In other words, the need to ensure inter-communal harmony meant that police avoided investigating as they worried that such an investigation would bring calls of racism.  A number of commentators, community leaders and child rights activists pointed out that the issue was not about race but about vulnerable children and the failure of state agencies to act effectively and appropriately when allegations were made. The trial court was picketed by racist groups, and Muslim leaders reported an increase in attacks and incidents of Islamaphobia.

To what extent does the ethnic origin of the perpetrator matter?  We argue that, for the most part, it shouldn’t matter when it comes to the prosecution of individuals.  In this respect, the Courts should be blind to ethnic origin (and indeed any other issues which distract from the case itself) – justice should be equally applied to all.  ITMB have a valid point: it is significant that the media so consistently emphasised the ethnic origin of perpetrators; would this be an issue if they were white English, for instance?  This was similarly seen in the discussions around the Rochdale trial, and the current trial in Oxford, which has a similar characteristics.  Negative media coverage has the potential to influence the jurors and judges.  So, although the Court as an institution may be blind to race or ethnic origin, those working within it, may not be able to be so “blind”.

There must be an awareness of several factors by the criminal justice system on the intersection between race and trafficking.  Firstly, an awareness of the levels of prejudice faced by Travellers and other minority groups by the police and other parts of the state and the consequences of this prejudice. This includes, for example, low level harassment alongside the development of poor community/state relations.  These factors limit the likelihood of crimes, such as trafficking, being reported to the police and, similarly, from successful advocacy being carried out by the police and other agencies within these communities to both inhibit the perpetration of trafficking and protect community members from falling victim to this crime.

And secondly, there must awareness, publicly and privately, of the fact that only a tiny minority of these groups maybe involved in criminality and thus any policing decision which considers ethnic or community origin has to be proportionate.  Extensive lessons on this issue can be learnt from the implementation of counter-terrorism policing in Northern Ireland and, more recently, of Muslim communities.  Here the use of racial/religious profiling, an over-emphasis on informers, ongoing allegations of harassment and victimisation, has inhibited the development of good relationships with police, and, subsequently, crime prevention.  The result has been to make intelligence gathering even more difficult as well as isolating these communities from the State.  In this respect, the role of minority communities in preventing trafficking, for example using their specific knowledge of an area and/or a community maybe significant – the BBC investigation into trafficking the Sinai noted that two of the victims were rescued by a local Bedouin leader.

The criminal justice system in the UK is built upon the principle of due process.  It is structured by a respect for human rights and equality.  In this respect, justice both needs to be done and be seen to be done.  The confluence of race and criminality, especially in relation to “hidden” crimes such as trafficking, although contentious, can impact the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.  A balance needs to be struck between robust investigation and prosecution measures, relationship-building with communities, and a need to understand the particular characteristics of the UK’s diverse communities.  There is also a need perhaps for more effective and strategic engagement between NGOs; for example, between organisations working on minority rights issues and those working on anti-trafficking.


1 Comment

  1. If you believe that the criminal justice system in Egnland and Wales at the level of the Magistrates Courts is based on human rights and equality, then you have never actually been at the sharp end of having to defend yourself when the odds are stacked against. You have to pay for legal representative (average cost 2,000) unles you are extrmely poor and hav eno savings, the evidence that the Magistraets Court is allowed to see excludes the written statements on which you will have been charged and i based solely on oral recitation by witnesss. No written or audio transcript of proceedings is made. Appeals take the fore of a re/trial and if you are found guilty again then you can be sentenced and h=given a more sever sanction. The police make no effort to inestigate your version of events but are meely handmaidens of the Crown Prosecution Service, whose sole interest is in notching up as many prosecutions as poaiblw. Mafistrates and District judges are not impartial but are inclined to beleive what the police say. Finally, the degrading process of being imprisoned while you are waiting to be questioned( in my case at almost modningh!) and the taking of fingerprints and DNA samples, even when these are not applicable to the case, creates the impression in the mind of all those involved in this farce that you are guilty. There is nio long in practice any assumption of innocence until proven guilty.

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