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Non-English speakers need not apply

Detective Chief Inspector Nick Sumner from the London Metropolitan Police spoke recently at a Home Office conference on labour exploitation and UK industry about a case in which he had achieved a recent prosecution. A Romanian man with mental health issues ended up in hospital as a result of the abuse suffered during his exploitation. However, the circumstances regarding his abusive treatment were not revealed to the medical professionals treating him as his exploiters accompanied him to hospital and were acting as his interpreters. When he was eventually found by a police officer, sometime later, wandering the streets after escaping the house where he was kept, she was unable to communicate with him. It was only upon contact with the Romanian embassy that the full extent of his experience became clearer. Worryingly, it was only at this point that the police became aware that a young girl was still in the house and had been horrifically exploited for several years. This scenario serves as an example in which language functions as an inhibitor to ‘rescue’ and perpetuated a method of control over victims.

Language barriers are frequently acknowledged as a factor in trafficking, but they are rarely examined in-depth. The UK’s First annual report of the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Human Trafficking, published late last year, which comprehensively reviewed the state of trafficking in the UK, made only passing reference to language. In contrast, a 2011 report on exploitation in Northern Ireland highlighted limited language skills as a contributing factor in the vulnerability of migrant labourers in Northern Ireland to exploitation. The authors noted:

Migrant workers are generally relatively isolated from the wider community, through lack of familiarity with language and social networks, which can place them in the very vulnerable position of being exploited in the labour market, while aspects of their working environment can further emphasise their isolation from wider society and in turn increase their dependency on their employers and the control exerted over them.

A lack of language skills often means contracts, and knowledge about rights, cannot be understood; which can compound other aspects of social isolation, including an inability to access assistance or alternative employment.

As part of the Staff Wanted Initiative, explored in a previous post, UNITE the Union flagged their difficulties in communicating with vulnerable workers in the hotel industry. Not only were unions rarely allowed on the premises of hotels but they found it difficult to communicate with workers due to the limited language skills on both sides. Unaddressed by the union, but worth bearing in mind, is the particular cultural resonance that unions have in other contexts. For example, individuals for whom union membership may also represent a cultural legacy of political assassination, abuse and torture in their home country; these contexts need to be considered when undertaking outreach with certain groups. Furthermore, unions may need to include confidence building with their engagement with such groups. Indeed, this could be applied more broadly to all kinds of outreach, including police and social services.

The most recent report on trafficking in the UK, produced by the Centre for Social Justice noted the issue of language and vulnerability. For instance, in relation to domestic servitude, they commented:

A lack of English language skills and, frequently, little knowledge of their rights in the UK mean that those forced into domestic servitude in the UK can remain invisible to the public and to the police…

In relation to trafficked children, language restrictions may also prevent a child speaking out about their experience. The extreme vulnerability and isolation caused by the inability to speak the local language, coupled with an entrenched fear of the police can often seem insurmountable, and children in particular are at risk of remaining hidden simply because they are unable to communicate.

Language can prohibit the access to and an understanding of rights – if people can’t speak the local language, then they may not know what their rights are and, more importantly, how to vindicate those rights or seek assistance when they are breached. A lack of English is an enforced silence to the voices of those being exploited.

Limited English language skills have been recognised by frontline service providers in the UK. For example, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the lead Government agency working on trafficking, note, “The Ministry of Justice produces foreign language leaflets to provide advice and support to those affected by human trafficking. Leaflets are available in Albanian, Chinese, Czech, English, French, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Thai, Vietnamese, and Welsh.”  Sadly there is no indication when in the identification process that such leaflets are made available to potential or established victims. Not to mention the production and distribution of such materials also makes a huge assumption regarding the literacy skills of non-English speakers.

The guidance provided by the UK Border Agency for its frontline staff does comment on the significance of language as a method of controlling victims; though in relation to the initial interview that the UKBA has with a possible victim, they draw attention only to the following:

Potential victims of trafficking (particularly children) are often reluctant to give information and may tell their stories with obvious errors. Such errors or a lack of credibility may be a sign their stories were made up by their trafficker. If the victim’s trafficker is present during initial questioning, you must look out for non-verbal communication and body language between the victim and trafficker.

Acknowledging language barriers becomes a redundant protection and prevention measure if no other tools are provided to overcome this barrier. For example, having multilingual posters raising awareness of trafficking is pointless if victims are interviewed in English or access to an interpreter is inhibited.

At a recent training session I attended relating to custody in-take procedures at police stations, I learnt that custody officers do not screen their incoming detainees for trafficking indicators. When asked how they might discover the specific circumstances of a person’s background, especially that of a foreign national, the response was that Language Line, a telephone translation service, would come into play. Foreign nationals, including those picked up in scenarios which may lend themselves to trafficking, such as sex work, farm labouring or factory raids, were not screened prior to being detained. A note of caution should also be flagged for UK nationals who would obviously slip through this screening net as they speak English. Language Line was used in full public view – at the custody desk, in front of both the custody officer, other police officers, and potentially others who were being processed into custody, including, one imagines, those who may exploit. The person in custody was asked to speak to a stranger, they could not see, in public. It is little wonder that few victims come forward at this stage. These barriers seem set criminalise trafficking victims by limiting opportunities for identification.

The Centre for Social Justice report found further that “Police have reported particular issues of dialect, where there might be only a very small number of appropriate interpreters in the whole of the UK, meaning that interviewing a potential victim will be a difficult and drawn-out process.” Translators, especially those recruited out of desperation, may not be trained to deal with the sensitive nature of trafficking, and may not be aware of, for instance, potential trafficking indicators. Translators, in our experience, have been known to engage in a variety of behaviour: from paraphrasing victim stories to embellishing; or even occasionally provide inappropriate feedback to either the victim or interviewer. On a related note, regarding Language Line, the report commented “…it can hinder a truly victim centred approach because of the lack of face-to-face contact. Potential victims of trafficking will have concerns about whom they can trust, and sharing their experience over the phone to a person they have never met may create significant barriers.”

Further, with the austerity cuts to resources available, not only to police, but other frontline service providers who may encounter trafficking victims, alarm bells should be ringing. In this respect, the services offered by X:talk, recently highlighted by London Time Out, are important. They provide tailored English language classes to foreign sex workers – crucial to the empowerment of the group against exploitation. This means that sex workers can talk with those purchasing their services, thus reducing their actual and perceived vulnerability. Further, it makes a positive contribution to this group’s ability to access support services, for example, sexual health provisions; as well as, should they find themselves in situations of exploitation, better able to communicate with the police. Rather than reducing the availability of translation services, the Government should see this as a central plank to their ‘victim-centred approach’ and provide support to this tailored, and non-judgemental service and the availability of English language classes more broadly.

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