Human Trafficking – March 2002


Trafficking in human beings, particularly in women and children, is a modern day slave trade. Most people assume that the slave trade was long since consigned to the dustbin of history by William Wilberforce. In reality the trade in human beings is a rapidly growing scourge hat affects countries and families on every continent.

Those trafficked may be forced into prostitution or to work as domestics, as labourers, or market traders and in a variety of other jobs. Recent research suggests that, at an absolute minimum, hundreds of women and children are being trafficked into the UK each year. Next month the Government are likely to publish a White Paper on the subject.

Any new law will have to distinguish trafficking from smuggling. Trafficking is a form of coercion. Unlike those smuggled into the UK, the victims of trafficking are unable to cut all ties with those who brought them here.

Victims come from Albania, Kosovo, Russia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, China, South East Asia and West Africa.

Some may be forcibly abducted and brought into the UK, but many victims put themselves or their children in the hands of traffickers to escape poverty and discrimination. Promised well paid jobs, education, marriage, many believe they will be able to send money back to their families. In reality they often end up exploited as sex slaves in London and our other major cities.

Escape for these victims is impossible. The traffickers often pay for the cost of their victims’ passage into the UK. Travel costs are then inflated by charges for food, accommodation, and interest on money borrowed from their traffickers. Burdened with debt and unable to secure legitimate employment, the victims are extremely vulnerable. Should they refuse to submit to the traffickers’ demands or attempt to escape, they can have their passports confiscated or are subject to intimidation, violence, torture or rape. Traffickers also make threats of violence against friends and family as a way of ensuring their victims keep working and do not try to escape.

Girls from countries where trafficking is common arrive into the UK unaccompanied. Told to apply for asylum at the port of entry, the girls are placed into the care of the local social services department. These girls subsequently disappear when their traffickers make contact with them and are never seen by the authorities or their families again. Since 1995, 66 children who arrived unaccompanied in the UK have gone missing from West Sussex Social Services alone, the majority in the last two years.

So what are the authorities doing about this growing problem? The Head of London’s Vice Squad has complained that his officers are unable to tackle this scourge because of a lack of guidance and legislation. Incredibly, the UK has no legislation that prohibits human trafficking. Police are using outdated legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act 1956 which means that in the unlikely event of traffickers being caught, they receive prison sentences of no more than two years.

The Government says legislation may be introduced in this parliamentary session or, as is more likely, the next. If politics is “the religion of priorities” perhaps the Prime Minister would tell us why other items of parliamentary business – fox hunting, civil partnerships, postal services or football disorder, for instance – are give priority over the elimination of this sordid modern day slave trade.