Brexit could destroy EU progress on tackling modern slavery

Britain would be weaker in the fight against people trafficking outside the EU


Much of the debate around the EU referendum has related to the negative economic consequences of Brexit.

But there are other aspects that are worthy of consideration, including the likely negative consequences of Brexit on the struggle against slavery.

Control over borders is one of the things that Leave campaigners identify as an advantage of UK exit from the EU. It is sometimes presumed that ‘harder’ borders could facilitate better detection of trafficking at ports.

But this presumption does not bear up to much scrutiny. Only a limited amount of prevention work can be done at borders.

Furthermore research by Anti‐Slavery and others has shown that non‐EU trafficked people generally enter the country to which they are trafficked legally.

It is only after entry that their position is made irregular by their trafficker as a further means of control. Immigration rules can therefore be considerable sources of vulnerability to migrants.

In some instances, victims are made to pay by coerced labour, for the risk that traffickers took by circumventing border controls through imposing false or altered passports on victims.

The removal of free movement from other EU citizens could render them more vulnerable.

In October 2013, research on the practice of the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) found that those who presented themselves as victims of trafficking from within the EU had a greater than 80 per cent chance of being recognised as such by the NRM.

Those from outside the EU had a less than 20 per cent chance of being recognised. At the time I said publicly that this was indicative of an institutional racism. Our research and advocacy ultimately prompted a review of the NRM in 2014 and the piloting of some reforms.

The outcome of these pilots have not yet been assessed. However, according to the government’s own statistics it does not appear that matters have improved.

The exit of the UK from the EU could place a whole new category of trafficking victims into precarious positions if the right to reside in the UK is removed from citizens of other European countries.

A small number of UK citizens have in the past been trafficked to other parts of Europe. If rights of EU citizens in the UK, including freedom of movement and the right to reside, are curtailed post-June 23, other EU countries are likely to reciprocate.

This could lead to increased risks for vulnerable UK citizens who find themselves trafficked into other parts of Europe by reducing their rights and potential recourse to protections within the states to which they have been trafficked.

Given the frequently transnational nature of trafficking, it has long been recognised that it cannot be countered without extensive international collaboration.

However, on exit from the EU the UK would also remove itself from EUROPOL and EUROJUST. Sir Hugh Orde, former president of the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, has noted that this would put the European Arrest Warrant and intelligence sharing at risk.

EU criminal justice measures enable direct collaboration with foreign law enforcement and direct actions that otherwise would take months.

They also provide resources for meetings, translation and assistance with understanding other countries’ laws and procedures. It also makes evidence exchange easy and cheap. This has been essential for the UK’s ability to counter trafficking.

UK has been one of the most active EUROJUST members and made use of joint‐investigation teams more often than any other EU country. Currently the UK participates in a third of all coordination meetings and between 2011 and 2016 the UK was involved in 67 Joint investigation teams. Sixteen of them were on trafficking in human beings. Some are currently live.

Outside of the EU the UK would also lose its voice at the Council of Ministers and hence be unable to influence EU wide law and policy on slavery, such as the wider application of supply chain transparency provisions, introduced in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act.

Without EU wide application of this measure it is arguable that British business could be disadvantaged by some less scrupulous European competitors.

So even though slavery is unlikely to be a central issue in the debates around the EU referendum, the outcome of the referendum and any subsequent negotiations with European neighbours in case of an exit could have significant negative consequences on the national and international struggle against slavery.

Given this I hope that all citizens concerned with the issues of slavery and human trafficking, will carefully consider this as they decide how they will cast their votes in the upcoming referendum.

Aidan McQuade is the director of Anti-Slavery International. Follow him on Twitter @the_mcquade

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One Response to “Brexit could destroy EU progress on tackling modern slavery”

  1. CR

    Utter nonsense. A Labour government free of the shackles of the EU would be able to legislate to deal with this and other problems.

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