Human trafficking isn’t just about immigration

New work from the IPPR tells us the real state of human trafficking in the UK.


Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR specialising in vulnerable migrants, equalities & human rights and homelessness amongst other subjects

Earlier this week it was revealed enforcement action by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority at a chicken farm uncovered 30 people whom police believed to have been trafficked to the UK for labour exploitation.

The case is shocking and it is good see action being taken. But enforcement actions like these are all too rare and criminal prosecutions even more so. Last year, just eight prosecutions for trafficking were secured.

Cases like this represent only a small part of a wider pattern of exploitation, and as research published last week demonstrated, the number of incidents of human trafficking coming to light in the UK is on the increase.

As this case also demonstrates, trafficking to the UK is more diverse than many realise. Despite public perceptions, trafficking to the UK is not only for sexual exploitation – last year people were trafficked for exploitation ranging from leaflet delivery to block paving.

Trafficking is not always linked to illegal immigration or people smuggling. The men identified at the farm were believed to come from Lithuania (so had every right to be and work in the UK) and data shows that trafficking within the UK also affects British nationals.

Trafficking is not just about organised crime. As interviews conducted by IPPR will show next month, a significant proportion of trafficking is undertaken by people who have seemingly no other involvement in crime.

The UK needs to respond to trafficking in a joined up way that takes account of this diversity – but IPPR analysis shows the UK’s strategy is still too narrow. An immigration-led approach misses internal trafficking.

The focus on stopping traffickers by targeting organised criminal networks is important, but may fail to stop traffickers from countries such as Nigeria, where trafficking is often undertaken between households. Focusing on immigration enforcement, while putting less emphasis on addressing demand for exploitative work, is incomplete.

Government commitments to shift anti-trafficking work to a more preventative approach are welcome, but efforts to do this are so far piecemeal and uncoordinated.

As this week’s case showed, however, the UK does have agencies at its disposal. The work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is an important example of the UK taking a preventative approach to trafficking that targets exploitation, not immigration. However, its full potential is not being utilised. The reduction in the GLA’s budget for enforcement work (down 20% since 2010) limits the organisation’s ability to take action.

The GLA’s powers are also limited to just a handful of sectors around agricultural work, meaning it covers only a minority of the sectors and jobs where exploitation can flourish. Sectors such as construction and social care, where traffickers are known to operate, remain out of reach.

The argument to extend the work of the GLA to these areas and to tackle the demand for exploitation is compelling; we must fight to push forward the struggle against human trafficking.

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