Slavery, trafficking and smuggling: What do we need to know?

August 11, 2021

Few days go past without mention of the migrant crisis impacting the UK, with seemingly dinghy boat after dinghy boat heading for the shores of Dover.

Journalists and politicians use the interchangeable language of people smuggling and trafficking to describe the movement of people – the two things though are very different, and the way we use the words actually does matter.  

Let’s start with the definitions.  According to the United Nations, ‘migrant smuggling’ is the facilitation, for financial or other material gain,of irregular entry into a country where the migrant is not a national or resident.  Human trafficking meanwhile is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit

In other words, the victims of smuggling are in many ways the country – if a country can be defined as a victim – whose border has been breached.  But in regards to human trafficking, the victim is the person who is coerced into exploitation in the most horrendous conditions. The distinction is important.  

Victims of human trafficking, those who are being moved to be exploited, are more likely to arrive in the UK legally with valid visas and passports, including European nationals who have a visa-free entry into the UK post-Brexit. Indeed, the single largest group of victims will not have crossed any national borders – they are British nationals; men, women and children exploited for criminal, labour and sexual purposes in their home country.

Last week the Times published an article about the record number of migrants crossing the channel, linking this directly to the increasing number of potential victims of trafficking being referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK Government’s system to identify and support victims of slavery. The report is misleading.  

The migrants arriving by boat are most likely to come from the continent of Africa or increasingly fleeing from Afghanistan. Some will be victims of trafficking, but the majority have paid large sums and undertaken the dangerous journey to seek refuge and a better life.

The Government’s own figures of those who have been identified as potential victims of human trafficking in the UK show that the top three countries of origin are the UK (with ⅓ of all NRM referrals), followed by Albania and Vietnam.  

But having made the distinction between the two groups, there are some things that unite them.  Firstly, those responsible for this illegal movement of people who are part of organised criminal networks, make millions of pounds with no regard for the lives they ruin and endanger.  People to them are simply commodities.   

Secondly, the key to tackling both problems is to be found among those who are trafficked and smuggled.  For they hold the evidence of who the criminals are and how they act.  If we treat them with dignity, we have the opportunity to target and dismantle the criminal networks responsible.  

The Government, however, while making the right noises of wanting to target the criminal networks and support victims, is introducing new legislation that may do the opposite.  

The Nationality and Borders Bill, introduced to tackle the ‘migrant boat crisis’, aims to reform the country’s asylum system, and also puts identification and support for victims of modern slavery on a statutory footing. This is a much needed and welcome commitment to tackling modern slavery, including the inclusion of victim support in legislation, but there are also concerns that in fact, it is those in genuine need who will be punished, and criminals will continue to flourish. 

Under the new Bill, it will be more difficult for victims of human trafficking to access the support package currently provided within the NRM – the Government believing that many people are falsely claiming to be victims of human trafficking. They point to statistics that show that 16% of people detained within the UK following immigration offences in 2019 were referred to as potential victims of modern slavery, compared to 3% in 2017.  Migrants, they think, are playing the system.  

But a closer look at the statistics shows a different story. Of this 16% of people claiming to be victims of human trafficking, almost 9 in 10 (89%) were, following an investigation by the Home Office, subsequently found to have ‘reasonable grounds to believe that they may be a victim slavery’ showing some indicators of abuse and exploitation. 

The Government has used statistics and rhetoric to advance their political argument and the need for a new “firm, but fair” immigration and asylum system that will break the criminal smuggling networks and better protect those in genuine need. The detail of the Bill though leaves a significant risk that modern slavery victims will not be identified or supported, their vital intelligence will be lost, leaving the door open for organised criminal networks to continue operating with impunity.

It is important that we flip the balance by getting vital and timely support for victims to help them recover and to enable them to engage with the police.

Tatiana Gren-Jardan
Head of Modern Slavery Policy Unit