With investigations ongoing int two people smuggling cases, Sarah Freeman reports on the rise of human trafficking into Britain’s towns and cities.
ED is typical of those who find themselves the victims of human trafficking.
Living thousands of miles away from the UK he dreamed of a better life, not for him, but for his daughter. Hearing there was well paid work in England he decided leave behind everything he knew and start afresh.
“When we arrived they said we were going to work for good money, so we worked hard for long hours to finish the job,” he says. “But when we did, we never got paid. Instead we were locked up. They forced us to do more work and they would beat and threaten us if we didn’t finish.
“We couldn’t go anywhere because they took our passports, IDs and money. We were stuck. I felt hopeless and totally powerless. We would fix up houses and go gardening. I had to move heavy things that I couldn’t even lift. I worked from the early morning until very, very late, seven days a week.
“All we were given were some tobacco, alcohol and bread and butter for the week. So that’s how I lived. At this time, I knew I was a slave. I was sold from person to person, bartered for right in front of my face. I heard a man say I wasn’t even worth £300. I felt worthless.
“I wished that I could die. I thought of my daughter too. I had let her down so much. I felt shameful. I couldn’t find help anywhere.”
Ed is not alone. According to figures released by the National Crime Agency yesterday, 566 possible cases of human trafficking were recorded in the UK between January and March this year - almost 50 a week. The majority of victims came from Albania, but there were also substantial numbers of Slovakians, Nigerians and Vietnamese.
Last year, 1,746 potential trafficking victims were found in the UK - an increase of 47 per cent on the previous 12 months and the trend shows no sign of slowing.
The latest NCA figures included almost 200 children and if the number of cases in the first three months of the year are replicated throughout 2014 it will represent a 30 per cent increase on 2013. According to the agency, the most common reason for an adult being trafficked was sexual exploitation, but there were also many cases of people being transported as cheap labour or into domestic servitude. One person was also trafficked for organ harvesting.
The spotlight has been shone on the issue in the last week with the rescue of 15 immigrants in Somerset and the death of a man and the discovery of 34 other immigrants in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Police investigations are now underway into both cases, but the death of 40 year old Meet Kapoor, one of a group believed to have fled Afghanistan after suffering persecution showed the risks many are prepared to take to flee their homeland.
It is understood that the group travelled to Europe on a lorry before spending 18 hours in the cargo container en route to the UK. A 34-year-old from Northern Ireland is being questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and facilitating illegal entry in the UK and a separate investigation is now underway into how the 15 people discovered in the refrigerated lorry in Taunton managed to stowaway apparently unnoticed.
“The Government has so far not had a good record in protecting people vulnerable to slavery,” said a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International. “At the moment many victims of human trafficking arrive in Britain unable to speak the language and terrified of being deported. Home Secretary Theresa May has published a draft bill on modern day slavery law and while it’s good that someone is finally taking this seriously, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“At the moment many victims who are brought in from abroad are treated as criminals. If discovered they are simply prosecuted and/or deported. Take cannabis factories. When police raid a site they arrest those who have been brought into the tend the plants. These are not the people at the top of the criminal tree, but nine times out of 10 there will be no attempt to trace the responsible for the crime of trafficking.
“In 2011 there were just eight prosecutions and I think that speaks volumes about our approach to this issue. It’s a crime which we are allowing to be swept under the carpet.”
Many migrant workers find themselves seriously indebted upon arrival in the UK. They can end up paying a sign-on fee - sometimes as much as £2,000 to a gangmaster, which often takes years to pay off.
While some make sure they are being seen to pay the minimum wage, they often apply a range of illegal deductions such as training or transport to work. In one reported case a woman started out with £149 as her weekly wage, but was left with just £19 after deductions.
The Refugee Council, which works with people seeking asylum in the UK, said that it was difficult to establish the full scale of people smuggling into the UK after fleeing their home countries, as opposed to those who are trafficked for exploitation.
But the charity said the Tilbury incident was a “grim reminder” of the difficulties asylum seekers face.
Chief executive Maurice Wren said a lack of safe and legal routes for refugees meant they are often left with no choice other than the risk using the services of people smugglers.
He added: “This tragedy illustrates, all too painfully, the desperate measures that people who are in fear of persecution, yet have no-one to turn to for protection in their home countries, will take in search of safety.
“For those trying to access Fortress Europe, this usually means having to rely on people smugglers.
“Unless we want to see more deaths on our doorstep, the UK and wider EU must create safe, legal, routes for people fleeing persecution to obtain the refugee protection they are entitled to.”
Robbed of a voice, many of the victims simply attempt to make do and while previous efforts at stemming the trafficking tide have concentrated on the main entry points to the UK, recently there has been a realisation that there needs to be a much broader approach.
Last month it was announced that Hope for Justice, an organisation set up to support victims of human trafficking, will begin work in West Yorkshire. Awarded £200,000 from the Ministry for Justice, it will join forces with Mark Burns-Williamson, the area’s police and crime commissioner to create the West Yorkshire Anti-Trafficking Network.
Hope for Justice trains frontline organisations like food banks and homeless shelters to spot the signs of trafficking. That was how Ed came onto their radar and after being given clean clothes and food, he was found a place in a safehouse.
“I thought I was finished,” he says now. “But thanks to Hope for Justice, I am so happy to be free.”