Gavin Poole is the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
Modern day slavery – the buying and selling of people at low risk for high profit – is spilling into the UK at worrying levels. Today, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) begins its review on slavery and human trafficking in the UK, in order to identify how we are reacting to the number of slaves within our communities. The slave trade targets the most vulnerable individuals in communities across the world, and it is time for the UK to become the global beacon for anti-slavery action once again. The UK has a remarkable legacy of anti-slavery activity, yet slaves remain hidden in our society today.
Our work will take a close and uncompromising look at the stark reality of child trafficking within the UK. The transporting of underage UK nationals between towns and cities, often for the purpose of sexual exploitation, is a growing threat to vulnerable children; last week’s arrest of 26 men in Rochdale over the prostitution and trafficking of young girls provides a shocking reminder. The psychological and emotional control these men had over girls young enough to still be in school is unthinkable, and it is uncertain just how many more organised gangs of traffickers are operating here, exploiting and abusing British children. We cannot box this off as an immigration issue.
Yet this problem is not restricted to British nationals in the UK. The pervasiveness and indiscriminate nature of trafficking is seen in the rise in cases of children from Vietnam being forced into working in the thousands of cannabis farms across the UK. These farms are found in residential streets across the country – and behind those closed doors are children, forced to work appalling hours for little or no money. Enslaved in homes across the UK are vulnerable domestic workers who want to earn money cleaning and cooking, but instead have their passport seized by their "owner" and are forbidden to leave the house in which they live and work; sleeping on the kitchen floor and eating leftovers from the family meal is commonplace. Invisible in off-street brothels are women of all ages, coerced into travelling to the UK for an apparently legitimate job and forced into a life of prostitution that they did not choose.
We believe that whilst there is much good work going on in the UK to confront slavery, much of it led by the voluntary sector, there is a need for a strategic overview to detail how this hidden criminal activity can be defeated once and for all. For instance it is essential that all government departments, the voluntary sector, the police and local authorities move in the same direction in order for the UK’s response to be appropriate and effective. Key issues of early identification (a high percentage of trafficking victims are only identified once they enter the criminal justice system, having been treated as a criminal and not as the victim that they are) will be addressed throughout the CSJ’s review, in addition to the issue of the enforcement of UK legislation in order to gain effective prosecutions and appropriate aftercare.
One slave in this country is one too many, and it is time for the UK to take a lead again. I encourage people who think slavery is a thing of the past to look again, and join the CSJ as we work to help build a different future for people trapped in this tragedy.