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Economy & Labor , Health , World

How the UK Became an Origin Country for Human Trafficking

by Amandas Ong July 20, 2021

This story was published in partnership with VICE World News and The Fuller Project.

If Emily had to guess a number, she’d estimate that more than 1,500 men raped her when she was a teenager.

A decade ago, men on the periphery of her social circle trafficked Emily, now in her early 30s, into forced commercial sex, raping her in dilapidated apartments across towns in Wales and the West Midlands and northwestern areas of England. 

Emily, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her identity and the safety of her young daughter, would watch as her abusers collected wads of cash, occasionally handing her a £5 note to buy drinks or cigarettes. 

“This sounds weird, but it actually felt normal,” said Emily. “You start to rationalise everything in your head. It becomes safe in a way… and you get used to the chaos.” 

Emily is one of a growing number of girls and women in the United Kingdom who have been trafficked domestically. Until recently, very little was known about the interplay between different types of domestic trafficking. There wasn’t a name for the type of exploitation. Women and girls like Emily were not seen as survivors of trafficking until as recently as 2017, experts say. But the emergence of cases like hers has helped to bring the full scale of domestic trafficking to light. 

Statistics from both the UK government and charitable organisations show that the UK is becoming an origin country for trafficking as a whole. More vulnerable British nationals are being taken from their communities than those of other nationalities, moving the UK away from its better-known status as a destination country. 

Despite recent pledges by the British government to tackle modern slavery, advocacy groups say criminal networks are finding it easier to target the most vulnerable Britons, rather than bring people into the country. While experts are still examining why domestic trafficking is on the rise, drastic government cutbacks to youth and family services of almost £1 billion over a decade are seen as having an especially dangerous impact. Local authorities in the UK have cut over 4,500 jobs in youth work and shut down more than 760 youth centres since 2012. This is a blow to critical preventative efforts such as drug and alcohol misuse services, placing more young Britons at risk of becoming prime targets for traffickers. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the situation: In November 2020, the National Youth Agency, an independent charity in England and Wales, reported that over one million young people went off the radar when youth services closed or moved online. With their incomes slashed, many charities have laid off part-time employees, who make up a significant segment of the sector. These redundancies have left hundreds of young people without mentorship or consistent support.

The dwindling of these services exposes the gap between school and home, where exploitation is often occurring, according to Adam Peel, a research and learning manager at the National Youth Agency. “The rise of digital methods [of exploitation] means that even a stable home is not necessarily a ‘safe’ space,” he said. “We are increasingly seeing middle-class and affluent young children being targeted.”

There is a heightened risk that young women who don’t have access to youth services will be sexually exploited not just by gangs, he added. “There have been instances where trafficking leaves them homeless and they are reliant upon ‘survival sex,’ forming relationships in exchange for accommodation.” 

British nationals are now more likely to be lured against their will than any other nationality in the UK, according to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official system recording potential victims of modern slavery. Government data shows that some 3,560 British men and women (34% of the total) were referred to the NRM in 2020, with Albanian (1,638) and Vietnamese (653) nationals in second and third place, respectively. 

The Salvation Army, which monitors trafficked persons who have appealed to the charity for help, recorded a 79% increase in domestically trafficked British people in 2020 compared to 2019. Its report shows that British girls and women are most likely to be sex trafficked or forced into county lines activity, like moving illegal drugs across the boundaries of police and local authorities. 

Emily’s experience of being exploited across different categories is typical to that of many British girls and women who continue to be trafficked today: someone she knew introduced her to drugs, which led her down a path to addiction. The stepfather of one of her close friends coaxed Emily into moving packets of cocaine for him at age 11, before trafficking her into commercial sexual exploitation. 

Several years later, when she was 14, three men gang-raped Emily in an empty swimming complex. She survived, but spiraled into substance abuse, which she says made her even more reliant on a string of traffickers. “I felt dead,” she said. “It was just emptiness.” She finally reported her own experience of child sexual exploitation and trafficking to the NRM in January 2019, more than 20 years after her first drug run.

As an advocate working in the anti-slavery sector now, Emily’s experience has made her an important point of contact for social services staff who hope to understand how to support other British women who have survived trafficking. 

It is a common misconception that trafficking is a problem that involves enslaving women who have been flown to the UK, according to Louise Andala, head of services at the anti-trafficking charity City Hearts in Sheffield, in northern England. “You could be the person next door. The movement of people actually can be [over] quite a short distance.” she said. 

Domestic traffickers have also targeted women who have already settled in the UK, as opposed to smuggling them in from abroad. Originally from Dublin, 31-year-old Margaret arrived in London in 2015 with her ex-partner and their three young children. As an Irish citizen, she was entitled to move and reside freely within the UK under the terms of the Common Travel Area. After her relationship broke down, she says she became addicted to alcohol and drugs. In 2018, she met a man who cajoled her into moving in with him. “He told me he had a ‘little job’ for me answering phones,” said Margaret, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her safety – her traffickers had previously tracked her down and caused her and her housemates harm. With no familial support, savings or friends, Margaret says she felt pressured into accepting his offer. 

She realised too late that it was a ruse to trick her into forced prostitution. The man and his friends held her captive with threats of violence, but she finally summoned the courage to flee in September 2020. Only three weeks passed before the leaders of the sex trafficking ring found her. “I was lucky that there was a door in my room that allowed me to get out and hide in a back alley,” she said.

Last year, the UK became the first country in the world to publish a modern slavery statement, outlining how the government is tackling the crime in its own supply chains.

It said it hopes this will spur other governments to follow suit and “leverage their spending power” to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development goals of the United Nations. But the 26-page document does not mention girls and women forced into prostitution, which modern slavery ostensibly covers, nor is any reference made to people trafficked domestically. 

When contacted for comment, a representative from the Home Office said: “Modern slavery statements are about measures taken to prevent labour exploitation in supply chains specifically, so they wouldn’t cover other forms of exploitation such as forced prostitution.” A fact sheet that the Home Office updated in January 2021 stated that a new five-year contract for victim care has been awarded to the Salvation Army, which is focused on tailored support for individual recovery needs. However, the document does not distinguish between domestic and international trafficking.

“From an evidence-based perspective, no research has been done… into why there is an influx [of cases into the NRM],” says Tatiana Gren-Jardan, who heads the Modern Slavery Policy Unit jointly run by Justice and Care, a charity, and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank. “The problem is that nobody has taken a wider systemic look to draw parallels between that and slavery.” Her charity is in the process of seeking funding to look into the subject. 

Some experts attribute the jump to charities and first responders getting better at identifying the signs of trafficking, and reporting them. This may partly explain why, in 2019, the total number of offences reviewed by the NRM jumped dramatically by 52%, to 10,627. The 2020 figure has stagnated, but Gren-Jardan says this does not mean that trafficking activity has ceased – it merely signals that with COVID-19, traffickers are becoming more discreet.  

“The NRM really is just the tip of the iceberg because it only captures the victims who’ve been found, and in the case of adults, only those who have agreed to access the support,” says Gren-Jardan. “Last year we estimated that we are finding one in 10 victims of modern slavery at best,” she adds, saying that she estimates the true number of people in slavery in the UK to be in excess of 100,000 – placing it on par with France. Of these, the majority are forced into criminal exploitation.

There is also huge mistrust of the police among trafficked women. Bryn Frere-Smith, a former police officer who has been active in the anti-trafficking sector since 2017, described the brothel raids he participated in: “As a bunch of big blokes in body armour…you either look like a customer or their exploiter. So that fear [of the police] is indoctrinated.”  

Emily says the way the police treated women like her was disheartening. A friend who had been trafficked with her tried calling the police on two occasions after particularly brutal sexual assaults. “It was just adult cautions [issued to the rapists]. You just knew not to go to the police. They’d be the last people you’d go to.” 

When approached for comment on Emily’s case, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who is the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection, said that the NPCC works closely with colleagues in the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and other agencies to prevent harm to those being abused. “The Look Closer Campaign encourages everyone to spot the signs of child exploitation – specifically in public spaces – and how to report it if worried,” he said. 

The Tackling Organised Exploitation (TOEX) programme, a national project between the NPCC and the National Crime Agency (NCA), is currently being rolled out, he said. The aim of this scheme is to remove boundaries within policing and facilitate the sharing of information about vulnerable people who have been exploited. More broadly, NPCC says that it is also working with charities like Justice and Care as well as other partner forces to bring traffickers to justice. 

Another hurdle that trafficked British women face is that they are seen as less likely to need services such as emergency housing and other forms of specialist assistance. Because they are British, some women get misclassified by the police as survivors of rape or domestic abuse as opposed to trafficking, and the NRM is not alerted, Gren-Jardan said. 

If the authorities are unable to ascertain “on reasonable grounds” that trafficking has occurred, said the Home Office in an email, support ceases within nine working days of a “negative” decision. A representative of the NRM stated that those who have received such a decision may apply for an extension for support if needed.  

Even if the women were to have access to NRM aid, it is not nearly enough. Emily Chalke runs the London-based charity Ella’s, which supports women who have survived trafficking and sexual exploitation. She said that the NRM is ultimately well-intentioned, but “nobody fixes their life in a few weeks, especially when they’ve gone through trauma.” 

Through a housing officer assigned to help her, Margaret, who had narrowly escaped being recaptured by her traffickers, found out about Ella’s. She has had a room there since October 2020. 

Now, she is steadfastly planning for the future.

“I want to have a home I can bring my kids to,” she said. “I just want to make them proud.”  

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