There are more slaves today than ever before. And on the first anniversary of my appointment as Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I am more determined than ever to combat this evil crime.
It has been just one year for me as Commissioner, but my journey in fighting modern slavery started much earlier. For 5 years, I was head of the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit. I faced brutal criminals who ruthlessly exploited their victims – individuals with no remorse for their actions. I helped vulnerable women who had been repeatedly raped, young children who were cruelly abused and grown men made to work in disgraceful conditions. This job birthed a determination in me to fervently fight this crime, and it is the duty to support the vulnerable and pursue exploiters that drives my passion as Commissioner.
Over the last twelve months, my team and I have worked hard to bring change where it is needed most. In the UK, we have seen increased awareness at both local and national levels, increased convictions across the country and increased victims referred for support.
Protecting the Victims
Children are among the most vulnerable to modern slavery. In the UK, hundreds of boys and girls are registered as victims of the crime, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it is likely that thousands are enslaved behind closed doors. Once rescued, children remain vulnerable to further abuse. Many go missing and even return to their exploiter.
Because of this, together with others in the anti-slavery field, I have been pushing the UK government to ensure that all child victims each have an ‘advocate’, someone who helps in their journey of recovery, defending the child’s rights with their best interests at the heart of all decisions. I am pleased to see that the government have taken on many of my recommendations, and hope that these advocates will be in place in the coming months.
While the UK does have an established system to support victims of trafficking and slavery, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), this is far from perfect. With many others in this sector, I have made urgent recommendations for a reform of this system.
I have also urged the UK government to make it easier for European victims, a group particularly vulnerable to a cycle of re-trafficking, to gain long-term support. European victims of trafficking and slavery lack access to assistance after their 45 days in the NRM – 45 days being the brief period of recovery given to victims. This vulnerable group cannot necessarily support themselves due to the trauma they have experienced. They are then left homeless on our streets, having to jump hurdles to gain any kind of welfare benefits. Most do not overcome these barriers, and so I have asked the Work and Pensions Committee to review this position and provide recommendations to the government.
Tackling the Criminals
The police play a vital role in fighting this crime and protecting victims. I have therefore introduced influential networks bringing together leaders of law enforcement to ensure work is effective and fruitful.
For every victim rescued, there needs to be an investigation completed. But this has not been happening. Vulnerable people exit exploitation but too many criminals are left free to continue. We will never end slavery if we allow slave masters freedom to operate. I have therefore called for crime recording of all cases so that investigations are carried out. Since my call for this, there has been a substantial increase in the crimes recorded. This is good, but in the months ahead I will seek to see all cases of slavery recorded as they should be.
The Role of Business
My appointment as Commissioner came as part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Another major change as a result of this legislation is the push for businesses to have slavery free supply chains. Any company with a turnover of more than £36 million must produce annual statements detailing how they intend to achieve this.
Earlier this year I wrote to 1000 CEOs to ensure they are aware of this change in law. In the words of Wilberforce, ‘they can choose to look the other way, but they can never again say that they did not know’. Many responded positively and I will continue to engage with the private sector since it has invaluable ability to bring freedom to some of the most vulnerable trapped in exploitative supply chains.
An International Response
Trafficking and slavery affect every country, whether as a country of origin, country of transit or country of destination. We therefore need to be fighting this global crime with a global response. Awareness raising needs to be targeted and capacity building must be tailored. This is why I have focused my international efforts on the counties where most victims of slavery in the UK come from – Nigeria, Vietnam and Romania – and I will soon make recommendations for funded projects to bring action where it is needed most.
I also lobbied to have trafficking and slavery featured in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals. For the first time in history, this was introduced, and ‘ending modern slavery and human trafficking’ was adopted under Goal 8.7.
While progress has been made in my first year as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, this work must not stall. We must never forget that behind every report of modern slavery is a life that is damaged, destroyed or taken – it is those for whom I work and I commit to that with humility, dedication and compassion. I will do all I can to ensure the United Kingdom fulfils the commitment it has made to lead in the eradication of this abusive crime, not just within our own borders but globally. We now have the opportunity to place slavery in the history books where it belongs. If we fail to take this opportunity, it will be us who will be in the history books for failing generations to come.