Last week, Filipino police, acting with support from the NGO International Justice Mission, rescued five children from cybersex trafficking. Local traffickers forced the children to perform sexual acts that were live-streamed online, for paying Western paedophiles to watch.
Make no mistake: slavery today is as dark and violent as it has ever been. Around the world, women in indentured labour are giving birth before being sent back to work; children are toiling 14-hour days in dangerous conditions and men are being beaten to death. Though the modern slavery economy remains hidden from view, some 40 million are enslaved right now, including people in the UK – more than at any other time in history.
To put it bluntly, there is a slavery emergency. Today, on anti-slavery day, we should ask: what can be done to truly confine slavery to the history books?
Four years have passed since the pioneering Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015. Though progress has been made – to the credit of the UK government – the problem is still vast. To tackle modern slavery, we must address the conditions that leave people vulnerable to exploitation: the hostile immigration environment, immigration policies and visas that leave migrant workers at risk of abuse, and cuts to mental health support and youth services that increase vulnerability to trafficking.
This includes making sure that we properly look after those survivors who are already in our care.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on modern slavery and trustee of the human trafficking foundation, I have heard of many survivors leaving the government-funded system of support only to become homeless or be re-trafficked.
Too often, we are failing survivors in our care. Effective trafficking prevention must include making sure that survivors are not exploited again. This means ensuring survivors have access to vital services long enough for them to regain their independence, and giving victims trafficked from overseas the stability of secure immigration status in order to make recovery possible. For this to happen, the government must adopt Lord McColl’s Modern Slavery Bill – something we should all champion.
Secondly, we must address slavery that happens around the world and impacts all of us through business supply chains. Eliminating the problem across the world requires all of us to raise our voices and act. Part of this means businesses moving beyond mere compliance with the modern slavery act towards meaningful action that actively invests in stopping slavery at the source. But businesses can only do so much, and ultimately it is up to the government to address the conditions that make slavery possible.
Finally, for the UK government’s international anti-slavery strategy to be successful, we must target the problem that allows slavery to flourish around the world. When justice systems don’t work to protect the most vulnerable and laws aren’t properly enforced, traffickers can act without fear or punishment.
Organisations like International Justice Mission have seen dramatic decreases in slavery where they have equipped local justice systems to enforce anti-slavery laws, rescue victims, rehabilitate survivors and hold perpetrators to account.
Slavery isn’t inevitable. It can be stopped. But it does require urgent, targeted action that sees laws enforced, traffickers held to account, survivors properly supported and measures introduced to reduce vulnerability to exploitation.
Amidst the chaos and distractions of Brexit, we must not fail to tackle what Theresa May rightly called the “greatest human rights abuse of our time.” And if there’s one thing that parliamentarians should be able to agree on, surely this is it.
Vernon Coaker is the Labour MP for Gedling