The Centre for Social Justice this week published its report on the tragedy and scandal of modern slavery in the UK. It reveals a hidden world of appalling exploitation of some of society’s weakest and most vulnerable, and calls on the Government to take a much more direct and aspirational lead on fighting this crime. It is too easy for the UK to be self-congratulating about its abolition legacy, but the CSJ has found that this historic ‘Wilberforce reputation’ rings tragically hollow today.
During the course of this 18-month review we have taken evidence from hundreds of people including police officers, social workers, NGO staff, local and national government officials and business leaders. Steered by our Working Group of experts from the Metropolitan Police, the voluntary sector, the legal profession andacademia, our search to uncover the hidden disgrace of modern slavery took us all over the UK and abroad. We met with victims who shared stories of unimaginable brutality and violence. We met one victim who was trafficked by a Romanian gang, forced to work like a slave and to live in a shed on his captor’s property.He described the unthinkable abuse he was subjected to before he was able to escape.
The scale of this problem is unknown; Government figures suggesting that over 2,000 people were victims of human trafficking in 2011 are the tip of the iceberg.
The Government’s claim that the measures it has in place to tackle slavery are adequate is a depressing reflection of the lack of ambition from our country’s leaders.
Our report, It Happens Here, sets out a number of key recommendations, shaped by our evidence, to inspire the UK to take a radical new approach to this crime and create an environment which is hostile to perpetrators and compassionate to victims.
The appointment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner is top of the agenda: someone to bring consistency of leadership (the remit of this problem currently sits with the Immigration Minister; there have been nine different Ministers since 1999), to hold government to account and to highlight the areas where the UK can and must improve its response.
The CSJ has been shocked by the pervasive misunderstanding of modern slavery as an issue of immigration; too often vulnerable victims of modern slavery who have been trafficked from abroad are treated first as illegal immigrants. This misunderstanding permeates the UK’s response, from government, to local authorities to police; the CSJ has heard evidence of victims of modern slavery being arrested and imprisoned for immigration offences. In one case, a victim only told of her experience of modern slavery when she was in detention, having been too terrified to disclose her story earlier; she was still detained for over four months before she was given any form of support.
Treating modern slavery as an immigration problem is wrong, unfair, and utterly counter to a victim-centred approach. The UK Border Agency plays far too prominent a role in deciding whether someone has been trafficked into modern slavery; we recommend that this involvement is urgently decreased.
A radical overhaul of support for survivors of this abuse is a third major recommendation. Reintegration and the rebuilding of lives must be an absolute priority; the current system puts far too little emphasis on outcomes for survivors, and must be vastly improved if these individuals are to be given a second chance at an independent, secure and self-sufficient life.
The CSJ works to give voice to the most marginalised in our communities, putting social justice at the heart of the British political system to create a society where nobody is left behind. Victims of modern slavery are some of the most faceless, voiceless, helpless people we have in the country. It is time to give them a voice.