After months of opposing the European Union’s Directive on Human Trafficking, the UK government recently backtracked and decided to sign up, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats praising the u-turn and equally claiming credit for the rethink; Claire French reports
“Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery.” – Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs
Trafficked children and adults walk unnoticed through the high streets of Britain – nobody knows how many exploited people there are in the country. European research claims that “several hundred thousand people” are trafficked into the EU each year – 43 per cent are involved in prostitution and 32% in menial labour. Robert Tooby, Wales’s first ‘anti-human trafficking coordinator’, who began work on Thursday, estimates the global worth of trafficking at £23billion.
Yet in 2009 (the latest available year), just 23 people were convicted for trafficking offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Last summer’s Channel 4 documentary, ‘The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers’, showed the difficult job police forces face when trying to prosecute pimps and gangs. The three-part series followed Britain’s biggest ever investigation into people trafficking, ‘Operation Pentameter II’, which saw the arrest of 528 people and the involvement of most of Britain’s police forces. The Guardian later reported that none of those arrested were convicted of trafficking offences.
After the rescue of 15 women in brothels around the country last autumn, the Northern Ireland Policing Board outlined human trafficking as one of its key priority areas in the three-year policing strategy. Past legislation has been well received but relies on police detection to be effective – as shown by conviction rates remaining low.
Tamlin Vickers, project coordinator at the Human Trafficking Foundation, says that proof of the government’s commitment to trafficked people will come from the execution of new guidelines. He told Left Foot Forward:
“There has been a lot of good legislation on trafficking, but it hasn’t actually been implemented. And there is the problem that very often the Crown Prosecution Service accepts a plea bargain, and the consequences are that the trafficking is not actually the charge that the traffickers are convicted on.”
Britain was one of only two countries not to sign the directive. The government’s rethink on signing up is welcome progress towards taking a more active approach against modern slavery; current legislation has failed to protect and serve justice to the victims of trafficking: between 2004 and last June, just 139 convictions were secured in the UK.
But will the legislation really improve anything?
Rotherham MP and former Europe minister Denis MacShane has told Left Foot Forward that the effectiveness of the directive will be judged on how European governments implement it:
“As with the Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking, it depends on the energy and drive of ministers who can instruct the police to make this a priority. If they don’t (and the same is true in other countries) you tend to see anti-trafficking work reduced as a priority.”
Home Office cuts to police officers and the 760 jobs reported to be lost at the UK Border Agency could also affect progress towards more convictions, he added.
As Left Foot Forward reported in September, the government had remained uncompromising in its decision because of existing law. On September 15th, David Cameron told the House of Commons:
“…we have put everything that is in the directive in place.”
In fact, the directive provides four new, important areas of legislation that did not previously exist.
A recent study into child trafficking by Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Centre for Rural Childhood at Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands, found that at least 80 children have been trafficked in Scotland in the past 18 months – with no successful trafficking convictions.
An important improvement to the law will require local authorities to assign a guardian to give support for child victims of trafficking. Current British legislation does not seek to provide emotional help and support – which has kept the number of children escaping from care and being re-trafficked high.
Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the The Children’s Society, says:
“We are pleased to see provisions for appointing an independent guardian for every unaccompanied or separated migrant child, which would provide parental responsibility to support them and make decisions based on their best interests.”
Britain will also be required to establish an independent commissioning team to research and analyse the national situation, which should then feed back to the government. Since 2000, the Netherlands National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings has produced seven publications, reporting and advising the national government on how effective anti-trafficking legislation is.
The previous government implemented some of the earlier recommendations outlined by the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. In the first 18 months of monitoring system, the ‘National Referral System’, 781 trafficked people were identified, including 156 citizens of EU member states (including the UK). Of those, 379 had been identified as being sexually exploited; 200 were victims of labour exploitation; 147 were domestic servants; and 46 remain unknown.
Opting in to the directive was just the beginning for the government’s much needed action on this internationally organised crime.
Horrifying violations of human rights take place all around Europe, but without the resources, such as police time and money, the directive could end up being nothing more than a smokescreen for the cuts to police and border detection.