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Shailesh Vara MP: The modern slave trade – human trafficking

Shaileshvarahdr_2Shailesh Vara MP is Shadow Deputy Leader of the House and Joint Vice-Chairman of the All Party Group on Trafficking of Women and Children.

Two-hundred years have passed since Parliament formally outlawed slavery, but for the thousands of victims of modern-day human trafficking, many of whom come to this country every year, slavery is anything but a thing of the past.

Today’s various forms of slavery are increasingly covert and deceptive than the Transatlantic Slave Trade ever was, and their effects are equally horrendous. Men, women and children are smuggled across borders for exploitation of all types – sexual servitude, crime, forced labour and even the removal of organs for illegal sale. Once detained, victims have few options and are often held through practices such as debt bondage, violence, kidnapping, and false promises of paid labour. Victims are kept silent with threats against them as well as to their families back home. With nowhere else to turn, they painfully endure the tragic consequences of a trade that, until recently, has often been overlooked by the authorities in this and other countries.

Of the thousands who fall victim to the horrors of modern day slavery, children are the most defenceless. Children as young as six are brought into Britain in their hundreds every year to be used as slave labour or as victims of paedophile rings. Sometimes they have been sold by their own parents and at other times they have been kidnapped. When they outlive their usefulness, they are discarded and left to fend for themselves. Currently there is no national mechanism for the identification and protection of these children. Instead, most are dealt with under the immigration system after being considered as children seeking asylum.

The majority of victims, however, are women. Poverty, vulnerability and deception all play into the growing trade that sees women sold into a life of forced prostitution with nearly half of all trafficked victims sold and abused for sex. Girls are often passed off as being years older than they really are, while physical abuse ensures their submission. And the fact that the women are treated as chattels, rather than as human beings, is summed up by a report from the National Criminal Intelligence Service which says, "it appears that prostitutes who are arrested or deported can be replaced within days."

The number of victims is difficult to quantify given the covert nature of the trade, although estimates number in the thousands per year. But an examination of the make-up of UK brothels would support numbers to be at the higher end. Ten years ago, roughly 85 percent of women in brothels were UK citizens, wheras now 85 percent are from outside the UK.

It is important to remember that this is an international atrocity and that the UK is primarily a destination country, with the victims originating mainly from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Far East and Africa. If this trade in human misery is to be eradicated, the British Government must act not only within its own borders, but also put pressure on the countries from where the victims come. It is time that the issue of human trafficking is put firmly on the agenda for countries to discuss in their various international forums.

Far from their own countries, victims who do manage to escape are likely to be without the funds to return home and are unlikely to find help from the country they have been smuggled into. That help is certainly in short supply in Britain.

Steps to rectify this growing crisis have been anything but hasty. It was not until 2003 that "trafficking for sexual exploitation" was criminalized with the Sexual Offences Act. Supplementary measures came into force in 2004 with the Asylum and Immigration Act, attracting a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment for trafficking within or out of the UK. But these measures are useless if not properly enforced, and the lack of Government support and commitment has ensured very limited success.

Following prolonged lobbying from the Conservative party, the Government has finally signed the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. The Convention offers, among other protections, a "recovery and reflection" period for victims of at least 30 days during which time they cannot be deported and they can consider testifying against those who enslaved them.

Moreover, the Convention provides measures to ensure that victims have access to redress and compensation; are eligible for medical treatment, counselling, and legal representation; and the adoption of procedures to identify victims, as well as ensuring that the work is undertaken by trained and qualified people.

The Convention also provides measures to assist in the prosecution of traffickers – the absence of such provision to date has tied the hands of local law enforcement and left helpless victims with no way out. For example, the Convention expands the UN’s definition of trafficking to include internal trafficking within a country and trafficking that is not expressly connected to organised criminal groups.

Whilst signing of the Convention is to be welcomed, we must be under no illusion that it completely deals with the issue, because it does not. Signing the Convention is only the first part of the process. For the Convention’s policies to be truly binding, and for countries to be held accountable, the Convention must also be ratified.

To date it has been signed by 35 of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe, but ratified by only three. The Government now has a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership by ratifying the Convention and to confirm its commitment to making this country genuinely free from slavery. Such an action can only encourage other states to do the same and help lead the way to eradicating this shameful practice from other countries too.

But signing and ratifying the Convention is not enough. The Government must have proper and effective policing of our borders which would proactively detect and deter the trade.

It is all very well the Government saying that money recovered from traffickers, through the Asset Recovery Agency and other agencies, will be used to fund the campaign against trafficking. The reality, however, is that the effectiveness of these operations in recovering money is relatively small. With global profits from trafficking estimated at $7 billion annually – nearly equal to that of illegal drug trafficking – it is clear that current measures are only scratching the surface. Effectively combating this enormous industry will require prolonged commitment to practical strategies.

The passage of the Slave Trade Act 200 years ago marked an important success in this country’s dedication to human rights. But the irony is that slavery has not disappeared at all. Amidst the hundreds of celebrations this year at museums, churches, galleries, schools and even the Palace of Westminster, this country must stop short of congratulating itself on a job well done. The battle is not over yet, and it will not be over until the Government goes further than simply suppressing the symptoms and addresses the problem of this modern day horror.

To see the questions Shailesh Vara has raised in the House of Commons on this subject, visit his website.


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