Human trafficking to the UK is a significant problem, and one that seems to be growing in scale.
Referrals to the National Referral Mechanism jumped by 25 per cent in a single year, between 2010 and 2011. In response, the government is set to roll out the Border Policing Command (BPC) this year as part of the National Crime Agency (NCA), reinforcing a UK anti-trafficking strategy based around border security.
However, the nature of trafficking to the UK means prevention must begin before the border.
The UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) reports more than 2,000 potential victims of trafficking were identified in 2011, although less than half of these victims were officially referred to the National Referral Mechanism for protection. Many of these potential victims were from Nigeria, which is in part why IPPR has conducted a transnational study exploring the experiences of more than 40 victims of trafficking from Nigeria to the UK, the findings (pdf) of which were released yesterday.
The consequences of failing to prevent trafficking were starkly illustrated by in-depth interviews in which victims recalled being beaten, raped, and forced into sex work and domestic servitude once they arrived in the UK.
There are three problems with trying to prevent trafficking largely through the use of border control.
The first is border control is not an effective deterrent for traffickers, who exploit the victims’ strong desire to leave often desperate situations at home. The phenomenon of ‘better life syndrome’ emerged repeatedly in interviews with victims, explained as an unwavering faith in the opportunities abroad that often blinds people to the harsh realities of trafficking.
Greater security in airports is obviously important, but it is not enough to prevent trafficking. Almost three quarters of our interview respondents indicated they flew to the UK in a single journey – successfully evading border controls.
The second argument in favour of an anti-trafficking policy less focused on border controls is some traffickers will always find a way in. It is critical to have a strategy in place which deals with trafficking once it occurs, rather than pretending it can always be stopped at the border.
The government’s ‘First Responders’, which include statutory agents such as the police, local authorities, UK Border Agency, and Border Force, were described as intimidating by respondents, especially those who were concerned about their lack of immigration status. The third sector could be instrumental here in improving access to protection.
As a final caution against fetishising border control, there needs to be recognition this measure fails to address the demand for exploitative labour that both attracts traffickers and may be met by vulnerable migrants who have already eluded regulations, by those who are not subject to immigration control (including EU migrants), or indeed by vulnerable people in the UK.
In addition to beefing up security capabilities at the border and beyond as the government intends, the UK needs much better enforcement of laws around child protection, vulnerable employment and sex work. More work also needs to be done with migrant communities in the UK to communicate messages about the law in the UK, unpick what constitutes trafficking, explain what support is available for victims, and drive home the consequences for traffickers of being caught. Community organisations and religious institutions could lead in raising awareness among their members.
The Border Policing Command may prove to be a valuable initiative, but it should not be the focal point on which the government hinges all its hopes for prevention of human trafficking to the UK. Strategies for prevention should be in play even before borders are crossed, which is why the government should also be cooperating with Nigerian officials to stop trafficking.
• Human trafficking isn’t just about immigration – November 1st, 2012
• Cuts to detection and protection undermine fight against trafficking – April 13th, 2011
• The horror of human trafficking, the “modern form of slavery” – April 3rd, 2011
• Government opts out of EU human trafficking directive – December 14th, 2010
• The Coalition’s scandalous opposition to EU anti-trafficking law – September 2nd, 2010