Victims of trafficking are failed by our state-led approach

The reliance on state actors to deliver support is inadvertently compounding the suffering experienced by some of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

Faith travelled to the UK aged 14 with a couple who had promised her parents that she would support her. When they arrived she was locked in the house and made to work day and night for no pay. She was raped by her exploiter and made to have sex with other men. Her trafficker told her that if she went to the police they would put her in jail.

After a number of years she escaped when a door was left open. She saw a policeman but hid until he passed. Instead she approached a woman on the street. She stayed with her for a while however after being abused she escaped again and stayed on the streets for a period. Help came when she befriended a woman at a local church. After telling her about her experiences the woman told her about a local support group who in turn encouraged her to approach the police. Four years after coming to the UK she approached the authorities and told them about her experiences. Her trafficker has never been identified.

Faith was one of the women who participated in IPPR’s in-depth case study report on human trafficking between Nigeria and the UK. In 2011 alone, over two thousand potential victims of trafficking were identified in the UK. Despite notable efforts by government, border officers and police, human trafficking is a crime that the UK is not getting to grips with. To start to do this, we need to acknowledge that state- led approaches alone cannot combat trafficking.

People who have escaped trafficking need to be supported. A lack of alternative support (whether real or perceived) was a key reason given by trafficked people for staying with their traffickers and exploiters. Even if they did manage to escape from their initial situation, without adequate protection people are vulnerable to further trafficking and abuse. Many exited one trafficking situation only to enter into another. Some were caught by their trafficker, others were ‘rescued’ and then re-trafficked into another situation. Others entered into informal support that was highly exploitative; including abusive relationships or support where they were obliged to offer sex or servitude to their hosts in return. Furthermore, with no access to safe support, our research was clear that trafficked people will feel less confident to pursue the prosecutions of traffickers. Addressing these issues is difficult. Trafficking victims need and deserve support, but too often their irregular immigration status prevents them from receiving it.

Perhaps acknowledging this, the UK has invested in systems to identify victims of trafficking. A process has been put in place to identify whether someone has experienced trafficking (the National Referral Mechanism or NRM, hosted within the UK Border Agency). Agencies including the police and border officials have received training in spotting signs of trafficking. Last week, the government announced that this training will be further rolled out to other professionals including social workers and GPs.

All this is welcome, but the government needs to broaden its approach. Part of the problem is that state-led solutions alone are unlikely to ever deliver a full and effective response to protect trafficked people. Due to the hidden nature of exploitation none of the forty people who participated in our research were referred into support as a result of a ‘raid’ by the police. Whether due to experiences in Nigeria or the threats of traffickers, people interviewed were afraid to seek support from authorities such as the police, border agents or social workers. Very few approached the police themselves and some actively avoided them. Instead they sought support from members of the public or people in community spaces such as churches. Critically, those they sought support from also lacked confidence in the authorities and many advised against approaching them. Often, interviewees only came forward when they came into contact with a trusted member of their community who was able to refer them into official support. By this point many were in detention, prison or had experienced lengthy periods of abuse.

Delivering training to frontline services in identifying trafficking is an important step. However, our research shows that we must go beyond state agents and ensure that the people in communities that victims of trafficking seek support from are equipped to help them. This means delivering training to people in community settings such as churches and community groups on the laws on trafficking in the UK, the support available and the routes into support. The voluntary sector also need to be involved. Finally, in order to ensure that people will engage with official agencies, the government need to make the NRM independent of the immigration system.

The reliance on state actors to deliver support is inadvertently compounding the suffering experienced by some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. We must recognise the importance of engaging communities in the response against trafficking in order to ensure trafficked people can access the help they need.

Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR

Posters are displayed in Quezon City suburban, Manila, as part of the annual observance of International Day against Human Trafficking. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.