The ancient crime creating a new generation of victims
More than 200 years may have passed since slavery was officially outlawed in the UK, but just last week an inquiry was launched following reports that the practice remains as much of a problem in modern Britain as it did years ago.
The Centre for Social Justice will investigate the issue following concerns over a lack of political will, policing resources, low prosecution rates and flaws within the system for identifying victims.
The extent to which human trafficking permeates British society has been a source of great debate and often divides opinion.
Unsubstantiated figures have led some to question if indeed the problem exists domestically.
For others, however, a longstanding and futile war of statistics has only served to undermine the experiences of victims and hinder the efforts desperately needed to tackle a national scandal.
By its very nature, it is a crime that spans borders and it is widely accepted that without partnership working, little can be done to halt it.
Myria Vassiliadou was recently appointed European Anti-Trafficking Co-ordinator and has been tasked with the often difficult task of aiding cross-border co-operation.
She travelled to Edinburgh earlier this month to speak to delegates at a conference examining the situation in Scotland.
Speaking to Holyrood, she said: “We have an excellent opportunity to try something new – at the end of the day, I don’t think we have been doing very well over the last 20 years or so in Europe and we have to change the way we do things.”
Figures on human trafficking are often piecemeal and incomplete due to difficulties authorities have in identifying victims.
In Scotland, it is estimated that gangsters can make tens of thousands of pounds every year from every person they smuggle into the country illegally, especially in the highly lucrative and increasingly common brothels in cities.
Reports earlier this month claimed at least nine major crime gangs are trafficking people into Scotland for the sex trade and forced labour.
Authorities have also been accused of failing to protect children. A report published earlier this year by the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People said at least 80 minors had been trafficked into Scotland in just 18 months.
The report said that even in the few cases where children had been correctly identified as victims of trafficking, a poor response, combined with a lack of successful prosecutions, made Scotland a welcome place for traffickers to operate.
The study also revealed that community awareness about child trafficking in Scotland was low. Researchers said the situation could be leading to a “significant number” of cases remaining unidentified.
The European Commission’s appointment of an Anti-Trafficking Co-ordinator came just months after a directive against trafficking was backed in the European Parliament. It was heralded as a major step forward in bringing countries together.
Vassiliadou knows there are a number of hurdles to overcome in attempts to tackle the global problem.
She said: “There are many challenges that range from how to identify victims in the first instance and how to prosecute people, but for my job the challenge is bringing partners together.
“There has been a situation where, for example, labour officials only speak amongst themselves, academics speak to each other and migration officials never talk with labour officials and so on. Therefore one of the biggest challenges is getting agencies to understand the necessity of talking to each other and creating policies that are more coherent.
“There are some countries that have managed to move towards a multi-sector approach and they have increased prosecution rates and services for victims.”
She added: “It is difficult to answer how big the issue of human trafficking is because many people want figures and data. We don’t really have numbers, we have a lot of estimates and one of the biggest problems we face is data collection.
“There is a host of reasons why we don’t have statistics - we have seen over the years that authorities find it very difficult to identify victims of trafficking so if you don’t know how to do that then obviously, you don’t know how many victims you have.
“There is an estimate that there are several hundreds of thousands of people trafficked into the EU each year. Do I think it has increased over the years? Most probably so because of globalisation, increasing inequalities, conflicts around the world and so on.”
Vassiliadou said it was important to acknowledge that trafficking often stems from locations close to home.
She added: “We tend to think that trafficking is a migration issue and that it is just people coming from outside the EU – but it is very much an internal issue as well.
“If we equate trafficking with migration, it is a very dangerous road to go down because there is a lot trafficking going on within Europe and within member states themselves. Transnational co-operation between the police is very useful and it needs to be done.
“Traffickers move and we have to compete against that. Unless you have the police and the border guards moving with them then we will not get very far.”
She added: “It is also very important that victims are not confused and thought of as people that are seeking asylum. Victims come into a number of member states and they are forced to be involved in criminal activity.
“They can later end up being prosecuted by countries or being treated as irregular migrants, which they are not as they have been forced to be there.
“It is not a case of seeking asylum and this European directive is about protecting these victims and trying to be able to identify them better and be able to say that once they have been identified they will be fully protected. We cannot go down the line of thinking ‘they are asylum seekers and we have to send them back’.”
A UN report said that around 50 per cent of trafficking victims are sexually exploited, while around 45 per cent are targeted for labour exploitation. There are a range of other factors that motivate trafficking, including illegal adoption and removal of organs. It is thought the majority of people trafficked into the UK are from Eastern Europe, northern Africa and part of Asia.
Vassiliadou said the Scottish commissioner’s report was an important step forward and she hopes it will encourage further engagement in the issue.
“I am very happy to see this report,” she said. “The report exposes a number of areas that need to be addressed and it is quite balanced. It is positive that a number of issues have been raised in terms of how we deal with identifying victims, how to deal with prosecution, data collection and child protection.
“Although the lack of prosecutions for trafficking is brought up regularly, I think we are moving forward – the prosecution element was not being discussed years ago.
“Prosecution rates throughout the EU are extremely low because in most cases, there is still that difficulty in identifying victims.
“We need to prosecute and we need to find ways to do it and the fact it is addressed shows we are moving in the right direction.”