Human Trafficking: An Increasing Epidemic

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Human trafficking is regarded as ‘modern-day slavery’ by charities and governments around the world. With this problem ever-increasing, Hannah Mather-Downham raises awareness on the issue.

In the wake of the tragic death of thirty-nine Vietnamese nationals being trafficked to the UK late last month, public awareness of human trafficking has become more prominent.

On the 23rd October, the bodies of thirty-nine individuals who had to risk their lives to gain access to the UK were discovered in a refrigerated lorry in Grays, Essex. The victims had endured a horrific fate, trapped as the vehicle travelled from Belgium; the vehicle was in fact destined for Purfleet, just outside of Essex. Thirty-one men were men and eight were women, with ages ranging between ten and fifty years old – more than a quarter were teenagers. The unsettling truth is that victims of trafficking span all ages, nationalities and backgrounds; there is no easily recognisable victim.

When thinking of human trafficking, the stereotypical notion of young women being sold into sexual slavery often comes to mind. In reality, there is a huge array of motivations behind trafficking, such as utilising human labour for construction or service industries, and even drug cultivation. More shockingly, many are children, accounting for one in four of all victims trafficked. Figures from the Government’s National Referral Mechanism establishing more than a third of all victims as aged eighteen and under.

Trafficking is not isolated to specific regions or countries either. The scale of human trafficking is exponential and global. On average, 40.3 million people are involved in modern slavery at any given moment, equating to a horrifying figure of 5.4 victims to every 1000 people in the world according to Unseen Modern Slavery records – a statistic that surely compels action.

It is essential to understand why trafficking happens, and there are numerous factors that account for it. A large proportion of victims come from areas that are affected by conflict, poverty and natural disasters. As victims seek an escape, traffickers offer them safe passage and guaranteed employment. The intolerable truth is that these victims are sold on the promise of a better life elsewhere, manipulated and lured under false pretences. 

One of the Vietnamese lorry victim’s last correspondence to their father stated “my trip to a foreign land had failed”, a stark insight into their decision to undertake such a dangerous venture. Sadly, this is the case for many. Yet for others, there is no element of choice; they are forcibly trafficked, normally tormented by fear of their trafficker, taunted by threats of criminal repercussions or danger to the safety of their family. 

Yet, modern slavery is not merely limited to third world nations. You’d be forgiven for thinking that human trafficking does not directly affect us here in the UK, despite the staggering fact that the International Labour Organisation attributes the UK as amongst the top three countries from which victims are trafficked. 

In recent years, the UK has seen a dramatic increase in trafficking, but whether our government’s strategy framework has been updated to reflect this remains questionable. The government claims to focus on ‘disrupting trafficking networks before they reach the UK’ and put ‘emphasis on raising awareness of child trafficking and ensuring child victims are safeguarded’. 

Recognising key indicators can go a long way in helping to prevent these crimes. Organisations that deal directly with the detection and prevention of modern slavery, such as Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authorities, rely heavily on tip-offs and intelligence from the public in order to intervene before instances of trafficking are carried out.

On the global stage, the UN General Assembly recently put in place national action plans to end trafficking, with each specialised UN agency having a specific function. Notably, the UN Human Rights Office has been working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organisation to train air flight operators and cabin crew to identify and report individuals that are suspected to have been trafficked. Proving practically viable, it resulted in 518 victims being rescued in the US during 2017, and could be an approach that would be effective if introduced here.

A step in the right direction closer to home has been the introduction of improved sanctions for the perpetrators of human trafficking. The Home Secretary announced recently that the most extreme cases of trafficking will receive life sentences. So far in this case, two men in the UK have been arrested, one of them already charged with manslaughter and facing a life sentence, and two more men are wanted. Additionally, there have been a total of eleven associated arrests in Vietnam.

Combatting human trafficking will remain an ongoing endeavour. Small but crucial changes to national and international policy are pushing towards cracking down on the causes, increasing punishment and improving public awareness. We can all benefit from educating ourselves and understanding the circumstances surrounding the issue. 

The plight of the Vietnamese lorry victims has brought this harrowing epidemic to public attention, and it should remain at the forefront of public consciousness. We must use our voices and be aware; if you see something, say something.