Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Phone a friend? Exploring a new helpline for trafficked persons in the UK

The UK home secretary’s announcement of a new anti-trafficking helpline distracts from that government policies that prevent the effective identification and support of ‘trafficked’ persons.

Patrick Burland
2 May 2016
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Andy Tyler/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

In December 2015, Theresa May, the home secretary, announced a new partnership between the Home Office, Polaris, (an anti-trafficking NGO in the United States which runs a national helpline), and Google to create a new modern slavery helpline in the UK to identify trafficked persons. Google will provide £1 million for the start-up costs. As Theresa May explained, “The UK and United States share a determination to free the victims of modern slavery and ensure those guilty of this despicable crime are swiftly brought to justice ... Today’s commitment by Google and Polaris will bring world-class experience and years of expertise to the UK in order to help survivors of modern slavery and stamp out this vile form of exploitation”.

The helpline will be run by the anti-trafficking charity, Unseen.  Unseen is a sub-contractor under the Adult Human Trafficking Victim Care and Coordination contract, which is managed by the Salvation Army and funded by the Ministry of Justice and Home Office. Unseen provides safe house accommodation in the south-west of England for women who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. The new helpline is due to become operational at the end of 2016.

This announcement ignored the fact that there is already a national helpline for trafficked persons in the UK. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) received £50,000 from the UK government to run it after it was established in July 2014.

It is reasonable to question what impact this new helpline could have on the response to human trafficking in the UK. Telephone helplines are a popular anti-trafficking initiative but there is an absence of rigorous and critical evaluation of their contribution. The data on the existing helpline is very limited. There is no data on the gender, nationality, or age of the people referred to the NSPCC helpline, or the types of exploitation those people are alleged to have experienced. Furthermore, there is no data on the number of people officially identified as trafficked after being referred to this helpline.

What little information we have suggests the existing helpline has had very little success in identifying trafficked persons. Karen Bradley, parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Home Office, has written that there were only 849 calls to the helpline between 31 July 2014 and 31 July 2015. This consisted of 491 ‘referrals’, 107 ‘advice cases’ and 251 ‘enquiries. Only 57 of the people who contacted the helpline during this period described themselves as victims of exploitation or abuse.

This evidence illustrates that the ambition to improve the identification of trafficked persons cannot rely on people making self-referrals through a national helpline. The difficulties for trafficked persons to engage the authorities may be caused and exacerbated by the UK government’s approach to immigration. In 2012 Theresa May promised that the UK government would create a “really hostile environment for illegal migration” and David Cameron, the British prime minister, has even attended immigration raids in front of the national media to emphasise the government’s actions to follow through with that promise. But, the policies and legislation adopted by the government to create this hostile climate may, perhaps unsurprisingly, keep people from reaching out to the authorities and instead remain in situations of exploitation and abuse.

Criminalising the vulnerable

Theresa May’s public declaration of the UK government’s determination to “free the victims of modern slavery” seeks to portray the government as the ‘rescuer’ of trafficked persons. However, the actions taken by that same government as part of its relentless quest to prevent immigration into the UK have made people susceptible to trafficking and furthered exploitation and abuse.  

The immigration bill currently being debated in parliament will undermine the successful identification of trafficked persons and make people more vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and abuse. James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, has said, that, “anyone who thinks the UK is a soft touch should be in no doubt — if you are here illegally, we will take action to stop you from working, renting a flat, opening a bank account or driving a car”. Yet, denying irregular migrants access to housing and financial services increases their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse, pushing them into situations often labelled as ‘trafficking’ or ‘modern slavery’.

For example the government amended the conditions for the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa in 2012, so that a person’s right to work in the country is tied to their specific employer. Those looking to exploit people for domestic servitude may knowingly take advantage of such rules, recognising that those whom they exploit may feel unable to contact the authorities. Individuals would be dissuaded from calling a helpline if they believed that making themselves known to the authorities could result in imprisonment or deportation.

In October 2015 a Vietnamese man found in Bradford was given a 14-month sentence for the production of cannabis. He was convicted despite the court hearing that he had been locked into the property where he was growing the cannabis and had been beaten by those controlling him. The defence barrister told the court that the Home Office was in the process of deciding whether he had been trafficked, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) wanted to continue with the case against the defendant regardless of the eventual decision. This would seem to contradict the CPS’ own policy guidance and the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. This case demonstrates how even when potentially trafficked persons are identified, providing them with support and assistance may not be the priority. It also contradicts Theresa May’s assertion that the UK is determined to “free the victims of modern slavery”. ‘Freeing’ the enslaved into prison for offences they were forced to commit does not make them free.

The UK government’s willingness to offer help to trafficked persons is very narrow. The case above highlights that only a limited number of people will be officially recognised as trafficked persons and thus as deserving of compassion and support. Many of the 849 telephone calls to the existing helpline may have been enquiries about individuals who had endured various forms of mistreatment but whose circumstances did not match the legal definition of trafficking as contained within the Modern Slavery Act. The creation of this new helpline thus exemplifies the government’s willingness to listen to the problems of trafficked persons while it refuses to listen to the suffering of a much larger group of migrants inside the UK whose experiences of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation are disregarded because of the circumstances in which they entered the country or whether they have the right to live in the country.

The £1 million for this new helpline could have a much more significant impact if it were put toward funding specialist comprehensive support services for trafficked persons. Trafficked adults in the UK continue to be housed in hotels under the government funded Adult Human Trafficking Victim Care and Coordination contract rather than in specialist safe house accommodation. The importance of protection has been overlooked in policy and legislation. Improving protection is not only significant for those trafficked persons who are unable to access support and assistance, but it can also have a positive impact in helping to prevent trafficking and prosecute traffickers. This would realise Theresa May’s asserted ambition that “those guilty of this hideous crime are swiftly brought to justice”.

The response to trafficked persons in the UK remains woefully inadequate. Even those identified as trafficked persons by the Home Office are only guaranteed the most minimal and basic support, and repeated calls to extend the period for which trafficked persons can receive government funded-support (to 90 days from the current 45) have been ignored.  None of the fundamental problems with the UK’s response to trafficking are in any way resolved by a new helpline. Its creation simply offers a distraction from the government’s failure to uphold its international obligations and adopt a human rights approach to human trafficking responses.

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