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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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