When you think of the crime of slavery, what period of history does your mind automatically think off? Chances are, like most people, your mind immediately flashes to images of cotton and sugar cane-filled fields in North and South America, being toiled over by African slaves, shipped by the millions through the dreaded ‘middle passage’.
Or perhaps the term slavery makes you think of the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the great temples of the Greek and Roman world, all built by slaves trafficked in from the outlying regions of these great empires.
It is unlikely that an image of a young woman, lying in a filthy bed in South London waiting for her next ‘customer’, or a homeless young man forced to work for next to no wages or face being viciously beaten come to mind.
This is unfortunate because this is happening right now, today, in modern Britain.
The short answer is yes. In the last decade, the Home Office estimates that the number of victims of human trafficking has increased from 142 to over 4000. Between 2012 and 2013, the National Crime Agency reported a 22% rise in the number of identified victims. The key words here are estimates and identified; these are only the victims who authorities are aware of. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of men, women and children forced to work in servitude in the labour market or the sex industry, and many of victims are British nationals.
Romanian and Polish nationals are the largest national groups identified as slavery victims, with over half of the Romanian sufferers being sold into sexual slavery. Polish people are more likely to be enticed into labour exploitation.
The issue of slavery always has and always will bring out human prejudice. Throughout history, slave-holders have traditionally belonged to the dominant social sphere and slaves have been seen as the underclass, either by virtue of birth, circumstances (perhaps they were prisoners of war) or race. Although almost all people would agree that this type of class division which historically protected those who exploited other human beings has no place in society today, it is still used, just in a more subtle form. Modern slaves are still recruited from the poorest, most vulnerable members of our human society, and although slavers now mostly reside in the criminal underworld, the thorny issue of immigration allows the bulk of the population to largely ignore the plight of the vulnerable victims.
One of the reasons for this is that many people simply do not understand the difference between people smuggling and people trafficking. People smuggling may result in immigrants travelling to the UK in precarious conditions, however, the individuals concerned usually choose to make the journey to the UK in this manner. Individuals smuggled into the UK usually have full knowledge that they are entering the country deceptively and illegally. Violence and coercion on the part of the smugglers are seldom used.
People trafficking, however, involves transporting human beings from one country to another by deception (on the part of the traffickers), threats, violence or other forms of coercion, for the specific purpose of exploiting their vulnerability through sexual and bonded labour.
Therefore, although individuals who are trafficked to the UK are often in the country illegally, they may not have had the intention (due to age, language and/or circumstance) to commit a crime.
In the 2013 case of R v L and other appeals, Lord Judge CJ provided a statement to this effect, which is worth quoting in full:
“ This vile trade in people has different manifestations. Women and children, usually girls, are trafficked into prostitution: others, usually teenage boys, but sometimes young adults, are trafficked into cannabis farming: yet others are trafficked to commit a wide range of further offences. Sometimes they are trafficked into this country from the other side of the world: sometimes they enter into this country unlawfully, and are trafficked after their arrival: sometimes they are trafficked within the towns or cities in this country where they live. Whether trafficked from home or overseas, they are all victims of crime. That is how they must be treated and, in the vast majority of cases they are: but not always”.
It is important as a society we do not ignore the terrible situation the victims of slavery find themselves in, whether they be immigrants or British citizens. No matter where these tragic individuals come from, they need rehabilitation, health care and assistance to recover from the terrible ordeals they suffered at the hands of their exploiters.
Slavery and human trafficking are appalling crimes, committed by individuals who have no regards for human rights and freedoms. They pray on the young, the poor, the mentally ill and the addicted. As a society which sanctifies human rights and freedoms, we have a moral, as well as a legal obligation, to protect the victims and listen to their stories.
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