“When I was ten-years-old, my parents died in a car crash. I slept on the streets, until a woman I met took me home and made me work in her house.
When I was 15, she sent me to England and said I would work as a domestic worker.
On the first day in England, a man came, raped me and beat me – I was terrified. He said that if I didn’t do what he said then they would keep beating me. He forced me to have sex with lots of different men he brought to the house. It was horrible.“
Even though most people think that slavery only exists overseas, modern slavery in the UK is thriving. The British Government estimates that up to 13,000 people are in modern slavery in the UK today.
Most people are trafficked into the UK from overseas, but there is also a significant number of British nationals in slavery. The most common countries of origin are Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Romania and Poland.
Most commonly people are trafficked into forced labour in industries such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, manufacturing and car washes. Many women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation.
How does it happen?
Typically, a person coming from a situation of poverty and lack of opportunity gets an offer of an apparently good job in the UK. Often the victim has to take a loan from an agent to pay for the recruitment fees and for the journey.
When the person arrives in Britain, the job and the conditions they were promised are completely different.
Their passport is taken away, and they’re told they need to pay off the debt before they can leave. Violence or threats are common practice, both against the victim as well as their family back home.
The UK’s response
The UK government’s response to modern slavery has been slowly improving in the last few years.
In 2009, the government set up the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), to which potential cases are referred and through which victims can access relevant support.
However, the legislation wasn’t fit for purpose and slavery cases weren’t dealt with properly. Victims were not supported and traffickers were getting away with their crimes. Anti-Slavery International’s calls for a new comprehensive law led to the passing of the new Modern Slavery Act in 2015.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015
- makes prosecuting the traffickers easier by consolidating the existing slavery offences
- increases sentences for slavery offences
- bans prosecuting victims of slavery for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers, such as drug production or petty thefts
- introduces child trafficking advocates to better protect trafficked children
- makes big UK businesses publically report on how they tackle slavery in their global supply chains
- establishes an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to overlook the UK’s policies to tackle slavery
Although the Modern Slavery Act was a step in the right direction, it is too heavily focused on policing, and doesn’t provide protection for the victims.
As a result, many are not recognised as victims and not supported properly. Many are treated as immigration offenders rather than victims of a serious crime. They are also less likely to act as witnesses in court and help prosecute the traffickers.
“Only 1% of victims of slavery have a chance to see their exploiter brought to justice.”
Kevin Hyland, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Challenges to tackle modern slavery in the UK
Policing. Awareness of modern slavery amongst the police has risen considerably over the last few years. However, we still come across cases where people can be turned away from the police station and not believed, and those forced into crime treated as criminals. The police also should have more resources for complex anti-slavery investigations.
Identification. The referral system often looks at victims of slavery through the context of their immigration status. This means people from outside of the European Union are up to four times less likely to be recognised as victims of trafficking and are often ordered to be deported rather than protected.
Visa rules also prevent overseas domestic workers from leaving abusive employers and seeking out new ones. This often leads them to suffer abuse in silence.
Protection. Protection and support for victims of trafficking is patchy, especially in the current climate of government cuts and cost-efficiency savings. There is no system to provide long-term support for all victims and many have to move out of a safe house before they have fully recovered from abuse and put their lives back on track.
Protection of children is also of great concern. Although a Child Guardianship scheme has been included in the Modern Slavery Act, the full implementation of it is scheduled for as late as mid-2019.
10 things you didn’t know about slavery in the UK
- The UK Government estimates there are up to 13,000 people in slavery in Britain today
- Only 1% of enslaved people in the UK have the chance of seeing their exploiter brought to justice
- In 2015, over 3,000 people, including nearly 1,000 children, were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery
- But nearly 40% of them were still awaiting a decision about their victim status at the end of the year
- From those who have received a final decision, only less than half were supported as victims
- Victims of slavery are four times less likely to be acknowledged as victims if they are non-European
- Up to 34% of victims of slavery are estimated to be re-trafficked
- Children are often deliberately targeted for their vulnerability
- One in four victims of slavery in the UK is a child
- 2016 saw the first conviction and sentencing of a British businessman for human trafficking