Confronting the UK’s Human Trafficking Crisis

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash 

By Anna Videbaek Smith

Bilkisu was only 15 when she left her homeland of Nigeria behind. She had read of England, of course, but had never dared believe that she could one day trek the hilly fields of Hertfordshire like an Austenian heroine. Then a phone call from her uncle-turned-saviour changed everything: he gave Bilkisu the offer of staying with him in the UK, where she could further her education and send money to her family back home. Bilkisu could not believe her luck; it almost seemed too good to be true.  She quickly learnt that it was. At 5 am the alarm clock went off marking the beginning of her 16-hour work-day cooking, cleaning, and caring for her young cousins. If her aunt was not satisfied with her work by the end of the day, Bilkisu was beaten. Nine years trudged by with no change, no pay, and no days off. It was not until she reached her mid-twenties that she managed to escape the grim fate of modern-day slavery, with the help of a local pastor. 

Bilkisu’s story is far from unique. Though rarely talked about, the UK has seen an almost ten-fold increase in potential trafficking victims from 1,182 in 2012 to 10,627 in 2019. While this is partially a result of increased awareness and improved methods of identification, many non-governmental organisations are sounding the alarm. The most common form of exploitation is forced labour, as seen in Bilkisu’s case, though this is often combined with bank fraud, welfare benefit fraud, forced begging, or shoplifting. The government estimates the annual cost to the economy is between £3.3 and £4.3 billion. Leading experts in the field, however, take issue with these calculations, putting the real number of human trafficking victims in this country closer to 100,000 – which would have a real annual cost of almost £40 billion. These numbers will likely only be aggravated by two recent events: the UK’s official exit from the EU, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, now more than ever, the British human trafficking crisis must be thrust into the public consciousness.

Experts predict Brexit will exacerbate the state of human trafficking in the UK in two primary ways. Firstly, prevention of modern-day slavery will likely become much harder, in part because a significant portion of workers’ rights stems from EU legislation that has yet to be replaced. This lack of legal protection will conceivably make workers more vulnerable to exploitation, particularly forced labour. This is only worsened by the fact that many EU citizens in the UK are unaware of their rights under the new EU Settlement Scheme, putting them in a vulnerable position. Moreover, reports from the Human Trafficking Foundation suggest many employers are unprepared for the end of free movement of labour, creating the risk that this labour shortage will be filled by traffickers. A final point worth noting is funding; in the past decades British human trafficking foundations have received significant funds from EU-affiliated institutions, particularly the European Social Fund. Thus, one might justifiably worry that these charities will become underfunded, weakening an already feeble support system for victims of modern-day slavery.

A second problem posed by Brexit is intelligence sharing when preventing and/or prosecuting cross-border human trafficking. Since its foundation in 1998, the UK has played a leading role in Europol and benefitted from EU support when carrying out anti-trafficking missions. Following the UK’s official departure in 2020, however, British cooperation with Europol is a fraction of what it once was. British officers, for example, no longer have access to Europol databases making it much harder to identify traffickers. This is only compounded by the limitations of the EGates system, which relies on watchlists to flag suspected traffickers, meaning it will not identify people who have not already been flagged. This method will become even less effective at identifying human traffickers without access to the abundance of EU data. Hence, there is reason to believe Brexit will only worsen the state of modern slavery due to complications surrounding preventative measures and intelligence sharing.

Another cause for concern is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has undoubtedly aggravated the underlying conditions that make people vulnerable to human trafficking in the first place; poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Furthermore, lockdowns and social distancing significantly limit opportunities to identify victims, meaning more people will be trapped in unimaginable and infernal situations. Moreover, the pandemic has inevitably led to a reprioritisation of resources, meaning the prosecution of modern-day slavery cannot keep up with the rate at which these crimes are committed. This also means victim support and prevention programmes have received less funding. All of this, combined with the UK’s official departure from the EU, will likely create a perfect storm exacerbating the already historically bad state of modern-day slavery in Britain.

As I am wrapping up this article, I am left with one burning question; why is this not talked about more? Part of the explanation, I believe, involves the so-called optimism bias. It is difficult to face the fact that such gross violations of human rights can happen right here on British soil. To me, and I suspect most others, this country feels safe. Yet, the experiences of Bilkisu and thousands of others have been characterised by exploitation and suffering.  Another theory might point out that Brexit and COVID-19 have sucked up enormous amounts of oxygen in the media ecosystem, leaving little left for problems like this. As COVID-restrictions are lifted and Brexit’s final chapters are completed, now is the time to shed light on the human trafficking crisis in this country. 

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