Committee publishes human trafficking report

14 May 2009

Home Affairs Committee inquiry into "modern slave trade" paints picture of poor understanding of the problem, patchy enforcement and little protection for victims. The Committee publishes its report to coincide with a conference hosted by the Committee that brings together the Chairs of the relevant Committees from across Europe

Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Unfortunately, our inquiry has painted a rather grim picture of a lack of understanding of, and therefore ability to deal with, the problem of human trafficking, among the various authorities in the UK and other EU countries. We need to be clear – this is not about "people smuggling": illegally bringing willing people into the UK. This is not immigration crime and cannot be dealt with as such. What we are seeing is in effect a resurgence of a type of slave trade, yet we have no good information on the scale of the problem, enforcement is patchy, prosecution rates are low and there is little protection for victims.

"A number of agencies in the UK - for example, the Metropolitan Police Human Trafficking Unit and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority - are recognised internationally as examples of best practice in detecting and rescuing victims, but we need to greatly improve our understanding of the problem. We need reliable information about the scale of the problem to be able to assign resources in the proper direction, and crucially we need much better training for the agencies and officials who deal with trafficking, both on the front line and in the criminal justice and immigration systems.

"We are disappointed that not all Member States are co-operating as fully with Europol as they could, and that not all EU Member States have taken practical measures to combat trafficking. However, we are today bringing together a "coalition of the willing", representatives of agencies and Committees in other EU countries, to discuss approaches and best practice in dealing with this appalling crime."

The Committee says one of the biggest problems facing attempts to tackle trafficking is the lack of any serious, current estimates of the scale of the "trade in people". At a conservative estimate, there are at least 5,000 trafficking victims in the UK, although some estimates say there are at least 4,000 trafficked women working in the sex industry alone. The estimates of the number of people trafficked into the EU each year ranges from 100,000 to 800,000.

The Committee expresses its disappointment that the UKHTC has not made more progress at developing estimates of the scale of the problem, one of the main tasks for which it was established. Without reasonable estimates of the scale of the problem, it is impossible to gauge what support services are needed for victims. Currently there is long-term government funding for just 35 places for victims in safe accommodation.

Trafficking – which must be distinguished from people smuggling - takes several forms. According to Europol the most prevalent form of trafficking in the EU was of young women and children for sexual exploitation, and the trafficking of children to commit street crimes (e.g. begging) was a ‘big issue’. ECPAT UK also listed cannabis cultivation, forced marriage and benefit fraud as purposes for which children were trafficked.

About 60 per cent of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found. Evidence from the Local Government Association emphasised the degree of confusion still surrounding the question of how to detect child victims of trafficking, and the Committee was particularly alarmed by accounts that traffickers may be, in effect, using the "care home system for vulnerable children as holding pens for their victims until they are ready to pick them up".

Adults might be trafficked to commit crimes such as shoplifting, pick-pocketing and the sale of pirate CDs and DVDs on the street, or into legal employment such as construction, agriculture and food production, and care/nursing. The exploitation of migrant domestic workers became so notorious that in 1998 the Government introduced special visas for them.

The Committee considered measures that could be taken to reduce demand for forced labour and sexual exploitation. Shortly before it gave evidence to the Committee, the newspaper publisher, Newsquest, announced it intended to drop all advertisements for ‘adult entertainment’ from its papers throughout the UK. The Committee also considered the proposal (included in the current Police and Crime Bill) to make sexual intercourse with a trafficked person a strict liability offence, and noted the view of senior policemen that this would be very difficult to enforce.

The Committee says that the difficulty in getting prosecutions for trafficking has led to the "Al Capone" approach, where suspected traffickers are charged for lesser crimes such as "living on immoral earnings". However, the problem with this approach is that the lesser sentences these crimes attract may not allow time even for their victims’ immigration status to be determined, let alone for them to safely re-establish her/himself in the UK or their home country.

The Committee identifies "major gaps in awareness and training" within the UK Border Agency, despite the best efforts of some staff, which it says "must be addressed by a greater emphasis on the excellent guidance already available". It was also "disturbed to hear anecdotal evidence of a lack of awareness about trafficking and its effect on victims among immigration judges. It seems that there is a pressing need for training of judges, too."

In the area of "legal" employment, the Committee says that outside the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s sectors, enforcement is at best patchy and at worst non-existent. The Committee recommends that that the construction industry should be the first focus and if, after two years, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate has not succeeded in reducing abuse, then the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority should be extended to cover construction.

The Committee noted the reduction in government funding to the Met’s Human Trafficking Unit, and recommended that, far from being run down, the unit should be sustained until the best practice it represented was embedded throughout the police service in the UK.

Image: iStockphoto

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