No one really knows how bad the modern slave trade is because reliable numbers are almost impossible to come by.
The United Kingdom is experiencing “a resurgence of a type of slave trade,” says Keith Vaz, chairman of the House of Commons committee, which recently issued a report on the problem of human trafficking.
The year-long study concluded that a conservative estimate for the number of trafficking victims in the U.K. is 5,000, although, as one witness noted, that may be low, because estimates for the number of women trafficked in the country’s sex industry alone is 4,000. The report also says the number of people trafficked in the European Union each year ranges between 100,000 and 800,000.
Trafficking of people across international borders for the purpose of exploitation remains largely hidden from view, and reliable information about the specifics of this illicit practice is murky at best.
Vaz says that the study merely confirmed that “we have no good information on the scale of the problem, enforcement is patchy, prosecution rates are low, and there is little protection for victims.”
One reason that information is hard to come by is that victims of human trafficking do not speak out. They fear retaliation from captors and they are often restrained by physical, cultural, or language barriers. Moreover, because they have been transported across borders illegally, they also fear going to the authorities.
London-based human rights group Anti-Slavery International estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of trafficking victims come to the attention of authorities or nongovernmental organizations. Klara Skrivankova, the organization’s trafficking program coordinator, notes that consistent identification of each incident as trafficking is also a complicating factor in determining the scale of the problem. Trafficking for forced labor, for example, is identified as an immigration issue rather than a crime of exploitation in many instances.
Despite the hidden nature of the crime, several high-profile incidents in recent years have contributed to public awareness of the problem. Most recently, the Guardian newspaper reported that at least 77 Chinese children had gone missing from a social services home since 2006. Organized criminal gangs used the facility as a clearinghouse for trafficking children across four continents to work in prostitution and the drug trade, the newspaper reported.
The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) was created three years ago as a multi-agency response to human trafficking, combining the expertise of scholars, victim-care organizations, immigration officials, law enforcement, and others. But the committee report criticizes the UKHTC, saying “witnesses suggested it was not really multi-agency, being dominated by the police and UKBA [the U.K. Border Agency]; that it was not doing much work to produce the badly needed estimates of the scale of trafficking; that it was not fully aware of the needs and rights of child victims; and that recent operations and individual cases had shown a lack of clarity in responsibilities and a failure to give useful advice on the support available for suspected victims.”
The report recommends that the government ensure that the UKHTC receives enough resources for data collection, which should be the highest priority.
The committee also recommended increasing public awareness, education, and training about human trafficking across several sectors. For instance, the report says that border officers should no longer issue migrant domestic workers’ visas when they know that the employer intends to pay less than the U.K. minimum wage.
Health service workers, social workers, building inspectors, health and safety inspectors, and police officers should be trained to recognize forced labor and should be instructed where to find help if they suspect someone has been trafficked, the report notes.
The report praises the efforts of some police programs and calls for cuts in funding to be reversed. The Human Trafficking Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which last year secured the conviction of six brothel keepers and pimps who forced a Slovakian teen into coming to the U.K. and working as a prostitute, serves as a model of best practices for other police forces, NGOs, and foreign law enforcement bodies, according to the committee. The specialist team costs £870,000 ($1.4 million) a year to run and will receive £400,000 ($636,000) from the Home Office for 2009 through 2010, a £200,000 ($318,000) cut in funding from the year prior.
The Metropolitan Police’s Paladin Team, which investigates the trafficking of children, is also underfunded, with only two of its six posts funded specifically for this purpose, the committee said.
International cooperation must also be improved to solve the problem, experts told the committee. “There is a difference between a polite answering of your question and proactively seeking to work with you to identify the problem,” said Commander Allan Gibson of the Human Trafficking Unit. “I think perhaps with Russia and Ukraine, we have law enforcement to law enforcement assistance, but we are not yet working…with those countries to actually deal with the problems right at the source, which is some of the criminal gangs in those countries.”
The report recommends that the government take the lead in ensuring cooperation and at least annual communication among source, transit, and destination countries.