Fiona Cunningham: New slave trade needs a modern response

VICTIMS of modern slavery are all around us. Men, women and children who have been lured, duped or forced to move from their home to the UK to be exploited. Yorkshire, just like any other region in any other European country, is not exempt.

The Government has decided to refer to human trafficking as modern slavery because it better explains what is actually happening. Being trafficked over an international or regional border is only a part of it: exploitation in whatever form and the trafficking that allowed it to take place, is modern slavery. The UK Government passed a Modern Slavery Act just before the election. It is the first of its kind in Europe, I hope it won’t be the last.

When slavery was prevalent over 200 years ago, there was no internet. Nor were many slave traders able to purchase low-cost international travel. So slavery as we know it today is modern. It thrives on modern technology and modern forms of travel. Modern slave traders can move vulnerable people around European borders very easily, which they do for profit.

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Trafficking a victim for profit from exploitation, robbing that person of their freedom and exerting violence and controlling through fear is slavery; just as cruel and unacceptable as it was all those years ago.

There is a very good chance that modern slavery is new to you as an issue in our society. When I speak to friends and family it is striking how few people are aware of the fact that people are trafficked in and out of countries in Europe in the same way as, say, illegal arms or a stash of cocaine.

But if we open our eyes, we might start to see behind what has not attracted our attention before. Where do beggars on the street come from and how did they get here? Where do they live and more importantly, how do they live? Why is a woman from Eastern Europe marrying an Asian man in the UK? Has she consented? Is she an accomplice or has she been sold by a trafficker and forced to marry against her will?

Most victims of modern slavery are, however, mainly hidden. Organised crime groups – the modern slave traders – do not wish you to see them. They want to continue exploiting their victims over and over again without any disruption. Unlike cocaine, which once used is gone, modern slavery victims are a continuous source of revenue to criminals.

In the UK, the law enforcement community is waking up to what is happening in their force area and how it has international reach. But the pace of progress is to too slow. This is equally true of police across Europe.

For my report A Modern Response to Modern Slavery I interviewed a number of police from all over the European Union. The conclusions were fairly unanimous: yes, organised crime groups are able to traffic vulnerable people very easily across borders with impunity; yes, it is very tough to stop and difficult to find victims and yes, modern slavery is a complex crime like no other which makes it hard to investigate.

But modern slavery is not inevitable. The world in which we live is made borderless by the internet. And as we have seen through recent images from the Mediterranean played out on 
our TV screens, traffickers will exploit people who wish to escape their 
life in one country to find hope and peace 
in another.

This presents challenges for police: if a trafficker sells a victim from a computer in France to a trafficker in the UK, who investigates this case? The French or the British? Where should the trafficker face trial? There are ways to overcome these hurdles through joint investigations with police in other countries. We need governments all over Europe to work more closely.

Modern slavery will not stop if countries – and regions – work in isolation. It will not stop if police, borders and immigration officials work in isolation. Organised Crime Groups – modern day slave traders – are far too good at making the most of their networks across Europe.

Until politicians, police, policy makers and the public do the same we will not stop vulnerable men, women and children being trafficked into enslavement. Modern slavery’s victims are controlled and silenced. We must 
be their voice.

Fiona Cunningham is an associate director of the Centre for Social Justice. She is author of a major report called ‘A Modern Response to Modern Slavery’.