In May 2016, the Guardian ran a story about a hotel in the Scottish Highlands, where the Bangladeshi owner scammed other Bangladeshis into coming to work for him, with the promise of high wages. Tricked into selling their possessions and borrowing extensively in order to pay the owner thousands of pounds for ‘visa costs,’ the staff were brought to the hotel and forced to work up to 22 hour days, 7 days a week. They were only allowed to shower sporadically, as little as once a month in winter, and were subjected to physical and verbal abuse at the hands of the owner. They were paid next to nothing, never more than £100 in one month, while interest on their debts mounted and their families back home were hassled by moneylenders. Whenever the employees raised their issues with the owner, he would threaten to revoke their work visas, a terrifying prospect under the weight of so much debt back home.
One of the many heart-breaking elements of this desperate situation was that the many people who frequented the hotel were oblivious. Local Scottish staff were hired but always quit very quickly, due to the working conditions. The hotel was the only one in the area and was therefore frequented by tour groups, which regularly observed the terrible state of the hotel but failed to notice that they were being served by trafficked individuals who were enduring a form of modern-day slavery. Unseen points out that modern slavery is a crime which “hides in take-aways, hotels, car washes, nail bars and private homes.” As in the case detailed above, modern slavery can be hiding right under our noses, as we enjoy our vacations right here in Scotland.
The UN defines human trafficking as “ the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Put simply, it involves treating people as merchandise, moving them around in order to abuse and enslave them by taking advantage of their vulnerability. Humans are trafficked for a variety of reasons. Some are tricked into various forms of forced labour, others are forced into sexual slavery. Women are trafficked into situations where they are sold into marital slavery as ‘brides.’ Recently, there are gruesome reports indicating that refugees who cannot pay their smugglers are being sold to organ traffickers.
Due to the illicit nature of human trafficking, it is not easy for organisations to produce exact figures, in terms of the sheer scale of the issue. The anti-trafficking coalition Stop the Traffik relies upon a range of credible sources to provide the following figures in terms of trafficked victims across the globe: Approximately 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. Of the 600,000 – 800,000 people who are trafficked every year across international borders, around 80% of them are females and up to 50% of them are minors. Worldwide, more than 20 million people are victims of forced labour. Most trafficked victims come from the poorest neighbourhoods in the poorest countries in the world. The International Justice Mission estimates that the “market value” of elicit human trafficking is US$150 billion.
Specific to the United Kingdom, the National Crime Agency conducted a UK-based study of human trafficking in 2014. It was found that Romania was the country where most victims were trafficked from into the UK, although ‘potential victims’ came from 97 different countries. 22% of the trafficked victims were children when they were being exploited. Exploitation of trafficked persons within Britain took a range of forms, including organ harvesting, criminal exploitation, domestic servitude, labour exploitation and sexual exploitation. In Scotland, the majority of the victims originated from Poland and were primarily subjected to sexual exploitation. Reports indicate that the number of victims being trafficked into the UK every year is steadily increasing.
So what tools are available to address the obscene human rights violations that are taking place through human trafficking? Within the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime is the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The purposes of this protocol, laid out in Article 2, are (a) To prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children; (b) To protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and (c) To promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives. The protocol has been signed and ratified by the United Kingdom. The UK is also subject to the Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Convention. The National Crime Agency details specific laws within the UK that address the crime of human trafficking.
There are also a range of organisations within the UK committed to the fight against trafficking and exploiting vulnerable persons. Such organisations include (but are not limited to) Unseen, Oasis UK, Stop the Traffik coalition, Migrant Help and the Human Trafficking Foundation. They offer many services, including helplines, safe houses and practical and emotional support for victims. They also campaign, lobby and raise public awareness. The Human Trafficking Foundation maintains contact with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), with the aim of supporting victims and helping DWP staff to recognise trafficked persons in their day to day work.
So what can we do, as concerned individuals? Donations and fundraising towards the efforts of anti-trafficking organisations are always useful for helping victims to access the range of support services that they need to escape their dependency on their traffickers. Groups such as Stop the Traffik rely on the voluntary help of professionals, such as lawyers, to battle this issue from a legal standpoint. Stop the Traffik also provides training for a range of community workers, to help them to recognise the signs of possible victims of trafficking and exploitation. The important factor is for us to work together and to be personally aware of what to look for and who to contact if we suspect that such a crime is taking place. Perhaps, by working together, we can help to protect some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities from the cruel consequences of human trafficking.