TCS special report: A look into the dark world of human trafficking

Hannah Graham 1 May 2014

This Monday, the Cambridge University Amnesty International group (CUAI) organised a panel discussion focusing on human trafficking. Speaking at the event were academics, campaigners and civil servants, all of whom work in various ways to combat the growing problems associated with human trafficking, both in the UK and abroad. TCS went along to find out more.

The word ‘slavery’ tends to conjure up images of 17th century ships, or Roman gladiatorial arenas, but this panel discussion, organised by CUAI, made it clear that slavery remains very much a contemporary issue. Human trafficking constitutes one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world today and there are an estimated 27 million adults and 13 million children who are victims of trafficking worldwide. Although the nature of the crime makes it almost impossible to gather completely accurate statistics, it is thought that more people are living as slaves now than ever before in recorded history.

These statistics were brought to life with moving conviction by Sarah Glover, of Cambridge-based charity Born to be Beautiful. Glover has first-hand experience of the harm that trafficking causes: a former beauty therapist, she now runs projects teaching beauty skills to women and girls who have been rescued from prostitution in Uganda and Mumbai. The women she works with are often so traumatised by their experiences that it takes around two years after they leave the sex trade before they can even begin to consider education.

David Nix, head of licensing at the Gangmaster’s Licensing Authority, a home office department which works to protect workers in the agriculture and food industry from exploitation, emphasised that trafficked individuals don’t always fit the profile that people might expect. While large numbers of women and children are sold into the sex trade, there are people working in slave-like conditions in a wide variety of industries throughout the UK. With constant pressure from supermarkets and consumers to keep prices low, the agriculture and food processing industries are among the worst offenders.

Nix explained that it’s not always easy to spot victims: "It’s very difficult to recognise [that] a big burly bloke who might look like he knows how to handle himself might be a victim of slavery." The question of how to identify and help victims of slavery was one that was picked up on several times throughout the evening. Dr Sarah Steel, who works on public health in relation to human trafficking, explained that the NHS can play a key role in spotting vulnerable people who might be victims of slavery. However, she warned that political changes risk making use of this vital service lead to other obligations that tie victims to their traffickers. "The government is trying to restrict the amount of access to free [health] care…to make sure that migrants are contributing to the NHS…one of the problems with that…is that the charge adds to the debt that people incur coming to the UK, so that’s another £200 they’re going to owe the person that brought them here.’'

This debt is one of the main things that keeps people in slavery: individuals run up huge debts to traffickers moving to the UK in the hope of better work and a better life, but when they make it here, they are forced to work to pay off that debt many times over, with traffickers often claiming benefits in the victim’s name as well as pocketing their wages.

It became clear that trafficked individuals come into contact with almost all public services in the UK. Dr Liz Hales, of the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge, has worked with trafficked women who have found themselves in the prison system, often because traffickers have stolen their identity documents, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution for illegal immigration. Here again the subject of funding was raised: cuts to legal aid budget leaves many victims of trafficking unable to secure a decent defence when implicated in the illegal activity of their traffickers. Funding issues often also mean that when a translator is required, only one will be provided for a number of defendants, so that traffickers and their victims must use the same individual. Unable to trust that the translator will not pass on their evidence to their abuser, victims often allow themselves to be imprisoned rather than give evidence against traffickers, who often threaten victims’ friends and relatives in their home countries.

Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford, Director of trafficking research centre at Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking joined Dr Steel in condemning not only the cuts which reduce the services available for victims of trafficking but the prevailing rhetoric which sees migrants as fundamentally less deserving of aid than UK citizens. After all, Dr Steel emphasises, human trafficking represents an appalling violation of human rights and victims of trafficking deserve protection in the UK.


If this article has inspired you get involved with campaigns helping victims of human trafficking, why not like ‘Born to be Beautiful’ on Facebook or volunteer to help out in their Cambridge offices? To be informed about events and campaigns run by CUAI, like their Facebook page or email to be added to the mailing list.