Kevin Bales: The shocking scale of modern-day slavery is revealed

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IN outlining her plans for new anti-slavery laws, the Home Secretary Theresa May was right to say that prosecution rates for human trafficking are “shockingly low” across Europe. Recent research suggests that the reality is actually far worse than she knows.

The truth about modern slavery is that across Europe we are failing to find, liberate, and care for hundreds of thousands of slaves who live among us. In the UK, thousands of enslaved men, women, and children are slipping between the cracks in law enforcement and social provision.

Over the past six months, researchers working to compile a Global Slavery Index have, for the first time, calculated what is known in criminal statistics as the “dark figure” for slavery in Europe and the UK.

A dark figure is the difference between the number of incidences of a crime that are reported and recorded officially, and the actual and true amount of that crime in society. Some crimes have a low dark figure, for example virtually all murders are reported and recorded. Other crimes have very large dark figures – the theft of bicycles is rarely reported to police. Normally, the more serious the crime, the more it is reported and the lower its dark figure.

But slavery is different. Most crimes are over in a matter of moments. A mugging, a burglary, even a murder, takes only a few minutes and leaves behind a victim who can be identified and the crime reported. The crime of slavery begins and then may not end for months, years, even decades. All the time the victim is being held, abused and exploited, they are out of sight and reach of the authorities. The result is that we have never known the true extent of slavery in Europe or the UK – until now.

Building on earlier research using house-to-house surveys that identified human trafficking victims in five European countries, the Global Slavery Index team has built up new estimates that are more reliable than any before. The results suggest that there are 1.1 million slaves in Europe, and more than 4,000 in the UK. The frightening fact is how many slavery crimes we are failing to detect, over 90 per cent in most countries.

To grasp what this means, imagine that only one murder in every 10 was being reported to the authorities, investigated and prosecuted. If that were the case, it would be a political scandal, seen as a complete failure of law enforcement, and cause for public alarm. Yet that is exactly the proportion of slavery crimes the UK government has been failing to find and address.

Theresa May is doing the right thing in moving a new anti-slavery bill. While previous legislation was well-meaning, it was piecemeal and the result was a dog’s breakfast of laws with serious and dangerous gaps.

Human trafficking and slavery make up a bundle of related crimes. Enslavement normally includes rape and assault, as well as document fraud, drug offences, and tax evasion, to name a few.

In spite of this, responsibility for slavery crime was spread across several departments and training has been lacking for police.

Victims of human trafficking, such as Vietnamese children enslaved in cannabis factories, have far too often been treated as criminals rather than victims. Links are only just being forged with charities that support and care for slavery victims. And because the laws and policies were not joined up, many victims have fallen back into the hands of traffickers.

The proposal in the new anti-slavery bill for an Anti-Slavery Commissioner who will unify and coordinate action is extremely important. Increased penalties are also needed. But they don’t go far enough. To stop this crime will require resources and training for the police, better coordination with social service agencies, and a heightened level of public awareness. Every Neighbourhood Watch scheme needs materials to help members identify trafficking and slavery.

Last Spring, an independent panel, hosted by the Centre for Social Justice, issued a report on human trafficking and slavery in Britain. The report points to one area of special concern, a real failure to identify and safeguard child victims of trafficking and slavery. The expert panel, which included senior representatives of the police and CPS, put forward 19 recommendations for policy and action. These recommendations belong in Theresa May’s new bill, as well as many others from the expert report.

All that said, there is good news. With the right laws, public awareness, and sufficient resources, the UK could achieve something no other country has. As more police are trained and deployed and more slaves are freed, we could set our sights high and make Great Britain truly slave-free. It would be a monument to our abolitionist past, and a beacon to all the other countries of the world, showing that freedom, real freedom, is possible.

* Kevin Bales is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, as well as a senior researcher on the Global Slavery Index.