Efforts to tackle modern slavery in the UK are in a state of crisis, a new report has revealed.
More than 1,000 trafficking victims were found last year, including a significant number of British children – yet these figures, shocking as they are, represent only the tip of the iceberg due to a shambolic identification system.
The report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has condemned the "inadequate" response of the government, and called for a radical overhaul of measures to combat the 21st Century slavery.
Christian Guy, Managing Director of the CSJ, said: "Our research has uncovered a shocking underworld in which children and adults, many of them UK citizens, have
been forced into lives of utter degradation.
"Yet the authorities are either failing to understand the nature of this abuse or turning a blind eye to its existence. Our once great nation of abolitionists is a shameful shadow of its former self.”
The CSJ investigation “It Happens Here” discovered a litany of cases where adults and children are trafficked into and within the UK and subjected to – forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced criminality (which includes benefit fraud, forced begging or pick-pocketing and drug cultivation).
According to the report, responsibility for leading the fight against slavery should urgently be switched to the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and away from the Minister for Immigration, to reflect the fact the problem is primarily a criminal matter and not one of immigration control.
The report also called for the appointment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, modelled on the existing Children's Commissioner, to lead a concerted counter-offensive against those depriving vulnerable people of their liberty to force them to work as servants or labourers or to sell them for sex. This role would also have responsibility for holding Government to account.
The report says the law should be changed to halt the current misunderstanding of human trafficking for non-sexual exploitation as an immigration matter.
It calls for introduction of a new Modern Slavery Act by Parliament to bring all human trafficking and modern slavery offences together. This will ensure that victims do not face the threat of prosecution and are encouraged to report abuse and seek help from welfare agencies.
To promote efforts to uncover the true scale of modern slavery and to give its victims the confidence to go to the authorities, the UK Border Agency should be stripped of its lead role in ruling on suspected cases of human trafficking, the report says.
The CSJ cites a case where a woman escaped from a brothel where she had been enslaved and fled to a police station, only to be arrested as an illegal immigrant because she did not have a passport.
Citing widespread ignorance among police, social workers and immigration officers about the scale and nature of human trafficking, the CSJ calls for far more rigorous training of professionals.
"Numerous victims of modern slavery are being prosecuted for offences they have committed as a result of being trafficked. This may include immigration offences or, in cases where Vietnamese people, often minors, are trafficked into the UK to work in one of the thousands of British cannabis farms, drugs offences," CSJ says.
The report highlights the scale of human trafficking within the UK for sexual exploitation. British girls trafficked for this made up nearly one half of all UK slavery victims in 2011. One incident involved a young British girl who was raped by 90 men in the course of one weekend.
"We have been alarmed to learn that British children being trafficked within the country are often viewed as somehow being complicit in their exploitation. This is absurd and unacceptable. Elements of control in these cases can be subtle and difficult to identify; this control frequently takes the form of sexual and other forms of violence, physical or emotional abuse, threats of violence towards family members or threats of public shaming," CSJ says.
Andrew Wallis, CEO of anti-human trafficking charity Unseen and Working Group Chairman of the CSJ report, says: “We simply cannot be satisfied with our current efforts to prevent this vile trade from happening.
“We have allowed human beings in the UK to be bought and sold as mere commodities for profit, gain or gratification. How on earth have we arrived at a place where there is no ambition or leadership to stamp out this appalling crime?”
Businesses, the CSJ says, should do more to eradicate slavery. It also urges Parliament to enact the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill, which was drafted in partnership with Unseen. This will require companies with turnover of more than £100m pa to publicly disclose the efforts they are making to ensure that their supply and product chains and business practices are free from modern slavery. The legislation on which this has been modelled has been highly successful in California.