To End Human Trafficking We Must Stop, Look, And Look Again

Only once we have a fuller understanding of the nature of the problem can we can identify at what point interventions can be made

Awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking is steadily growing. And recent media attention, with programmes on major broadcast channels in the UK, has helped shed further light on these global and widespread issues.

With an excess of 40 million* people trapped in slavery worldwide today – and 13,000** in the UK – attention to and awareness of this problem is welcome and much needed.

Men, women and children are routinely trafficked into forced labour, poverty and deprivation across the world. Too often modern-day slavery goes undetected. This insidious practice often plays out hidden in plain sight and the areas of our lives it touches are widespread. Forced labour exists in the domestic, agricultural, construction, hospitality, beauty and retail industries to name but a few.

But what is clearer now more than ever is that we need to look even more closely at the causes and consequences of modern-day slavery. To look again at our understanding of what human trafficking is. And how it manifests itself.

We need to change preconceived ideas of what trafficking is. The illegal transportation of people for exploitation takes multiple forms. Domestic servitude, bonded labour, sexual exploitation and early forced marriage are just some examples. But these are not static. Often victims are exploited in a number of different ways. One form of trafficking can move easily towards another – and rapidly.

It is paramount that we deepen our understanding of the complex dynamics of the trafficking relationship. Central to that is to abandon conceptions of a linear cause and effect connection. The relationship is not as simplistic as terms such as ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ might imply.

Deception and emotional manipulation of victims are undoubtedly mechanisms adopted by criminals to foster an exploitative relationship. A lack of awareness among potential victims of the dangers and deception tactics employed is, indeed, one crucial element that must be addressed. But to see victims merely as passive objects runs the risk of simplifying what is a complex and challenging problem.

We need to examine the root causes of exploitation. And recognise that victims are often forced to make decisions based on their understanding of the options available to them in order to survive. We need to identify what are the contributory factors at source that are leading or causing victims to engage with perpetrators – and put themselves in such a vulnerable position. Victims of trafficking are often aware they are in a damaging relationship – but staying in this relationship is often a better alternative to them than going back to the situation they are trying to escape from.

The perceived risks of escaping – due to a lack of viable alternatives and/or a lack of trust in the authorities – creates victim dependency. There is complex emotional manipulation at play, too – victims may have been conditioned to such an extent that staying with or even returning to the perpetrator(s) is to them their only, or least worst, option.

Victim dependency and lack of trust in the authorities must not be underestimated by agencies and authorities who are intervening in this area. Victims are often managing a complex series of factors that combine to create loyalty to the perpetrator, even at the expense of their own welfare. Lack of trust also compels many to reject interventions – a young victim of trafficking, for example, may flee state care to return to the exploitative situation that authorities are attempting to rescue them from.

The difficulties stretch still further in the context of child trafficking. Children are largely overlooked in terms of legislation and provisions. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a welcome, and landmark, piece of legislation. But the UK could be doing so much more to address exploitation if adequate measures were incorporated to protect and support child victims.

It is promising that there is so much good will among professionals to tackle modern-day slavery. But their struggle to help victims is exacerbated not just by a lack of provision but a lack of information, as they rise to the challenge of implementing the recent legislation.

Only once we have a fuller understanding of the nature of the problem can we can identify at what point interventions can be made – and what the most effective methods might be.

*There is an estimated 40.3million people trapped in slavery across the world according to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: a collaborative effort between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM)

** The Home Office estimates there are 13,000 slaves in the UK

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