The upsurge in human trafficking over recent years is one of the saddest and most serious aspects of the on-going globalisation of crime. Here we assess the scale of the problem and look at how technology can be employed to address it.
According to a recent study by the human rights charity, Walk Free Foundation, an estimated 29.8 million people live in slavery around the world, an all-time high for exploitation of this kind. The report also identified a total of 162 countries where humans are trafficked for sex work and unskilled labour. And the UN Office on Drugs and Crime recently described human trafficking as a global enterprise worth in the region of US$32 billion.
Today, human trafficking is big business, in many cases driven by far-reaching international criminal networks. Despite this, most countries have not deployed the kinds of large scale coordinated response efforts typically used to address terrorism or cybercrime, for example. Unfortunately, while it is increasingly high-profile in the media and widely condemned in all civilised countries, human trafficking is a difficult problem to combat.
Historically, police forces and governments have struggled to tackle the complex issues surrounding human trafficking. But there are positive signs from individual countries and international efforts to start to tackle the issue more strategically. As of 2012, 134 countries and territories had enacted legislation criminalising trafficking and the percentage of countries without an offence criminalising this activity halved between 2008 and 2012.
In the European Union, one of the key items of legislation is the EU directive on trafficking human beings, which covers areas such as criminal law provisions, prosecution of offenders and victims' support. Over time, all members of the EU have been required to comply.
We are also now seeing proactive legislation at a national level in Europe. In the UK, the government's draft Modern Slavery Bill has been widely seen as a positive step forward and critically provides the police and judiciary with additional powers, enabling them to be more effective in the way they fight trafficking. The new National Crime Agency will take the lead here, highlighting how seriously police are taking the challenge of combating organised crime groups involved in this lucrative trade.
New legislation of this sort highlights that there is growing commitment from governments across the world to proactively combat trafficking. However, legislation is itself not enough and more will need to be done if the police are going to be able to tackle this crime head on.
Raising public awareness will certainly be key as will giving victims the confidence to report these crimes to the authorities. Internal government groups can play their part as can pressure groups. But technology will also have a key role to play.
Agencies dedicated to tackling human trafficking need to start deploying solutions that enable them to confront it. Effective information gathering will clearly be critical in tackling the problem. This does not have to be carried out directly by the police; it could be through informants, or from leads received from the public, for example.
It is however often the case that a significant amount of intelligence is already available about the activities of human traffickers and those being trafficked. This information is however often buried in case files on prostitution and drugs offences and simply not classified or linked to human trafficking offences specifically. Modern technology has an important role to play here to enable the police to search this data and extract and link the data they need to build the intelligence picture.
The global nature of this crime also means the sharing of intelligence internationally will be critical in targeting the international traffickers. Although cross border cooperation has greatly improved between police forces in recent years, the technology platforms to support their work are still in their infancy - a challenge that needs to be addressed with pace.
It is clear that today the desire is there to tackle the challenges of human trafficking. Governments and judicial systems are increasingly demonstrating a will to put the appropriate legislation and punishments in place to target traffickers and support victims. The scene is now positively set for law enforcement agencies to raise the priority they place on tackling this terrible crime and step up the efforts at international level.