Polish men conned into working on building sites in Sheffield without being paid, then turfed out of their squalid digs, onto the streets, by thugs with baseball bats. Young Romanian women duped into searching out a new life in this country, only to be handed over to criminal gangs running brothels. It is a sad fact that, tomorrow, we mark Anti-Slavery Day not as a commemoration of history, but as a clarion call to action.
These are not isolated cases. Human trafficking is a burgeoning trade in misery, with men and women sold for thousands of pounds each. Police upper estimates of the number of victims trafficked into Britain have quadrupled in recent years, from 4,000 to 18,000. The last government made a big song and dance about ratifying the European Convention on Human Trafficking. Now, in opposition, they are calling for Britain to ‘opt in’ to an EU Directive. But, passing new laws, and signing up to international rules, will not make up for longstanding failures in law enforcement.
The Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit was axed by Labour – just months before the election – and rolled into SCD9 command. Outside the capital, too many police forces do not incorporate human trafficking into their Control Strategy, so it is not an operational priority.
At the same time, Labour invested in the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield, which focuses on liaison between government agencies and raising awareness. Given the finite resources available, the focus should have been on maintaining the limited operational capacity we have. Clearly, the current financial pressures restrict our ability to reverse all of these mistakes in the short term. Nevertheless, when the Government establishes the National Crime Agency, cracking down on human trafficking should be part of its mainstream work in cooperation with local forces.
Similarly, the low conviction rates for forced prostitution and forced labour show we have barely scratched the surface of this massive problem. If we are serious about disrupting and deterring these gangs, we must send a much clearer message – if you engage in this brutal trade, you will end up behind bars. A Crown Prosecution Service review concludes this month. The report and its findings should be debated in Parliament.
Progress has been made in helping the victims of trafficking. I visited the Poppy Project in South London last month. The number of beds for female victims has doubled since I visited three years ago. Other organisations like Migrant Helpline, which finds temporary accommodation for victims, and charities like CHASTE which runs safe houses, offer lifelines to the most vulnerable victims.
However, the most shocking failure in recent years is the ease with which children, rescued from brothels, fall into the hands of the very gangs from which they fled. A report by the Border and Immigration Agency showed that, between 2006 and 2009, 77 Chinese children went missing from one home in Hillingdon near Heathrow. Only 4 were found, including one pregnant girl, and another fitted with a contraceptive device in her arm. If a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, we are falling short. That is why I am supporting ECPAT’s campaign for a system of guardianship to protect child victims. Safe houses like the Poppy Project cannot take children, and the current system of local authority care is inadequate.
When the victims recover from the immediate trauma and physical harm, the presumption should be that they are repatriated home, where this can be done safely. The latest data shows the five most common countries of origin are Nigeria, China, Vietnam, Slovakia and Romania. There are many good local NGOs and community groups abroad, running safe houses or providing other services. The Department for International Development should make it a priority to increase its level of support for such projects. That is just one of the ways in which we can deliver a compassionate foreign policy – that also directly serves a key national interest.
Finally, we must address the gaping holes in our porous borders. Human trafficking demonstrates all too clearly that it is not a sign of compassion – but positively cruel – to neglect border controls. The establishment of a Border Police Force will help cut off the supply routes the traffickers use. But there are other simple, common sense, measures that would make an impact. Unrelated minors who accompany an adult should be interviewed at passport control, with basic checks carried out where only the adult is carrying a return ticket. We need to set a series of trip wires for the traffickers at the border.
Above all, we need to end the fixation with legislation, and attack the problem at every level: to prevent the trade at the border, to prosecute the gangs, and to protect the victims of this modern form of the slave trade – still very much thriving in Britain today.