Today marks World Day Against Trafficking In Persons 2023. The ILO estimates there are 24.9 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released in January this year indicates that the Coronavirus pandemic and other crises around the world increased the vulnerability of human trafficking victims, yet fewer victims of modern slavery are being identified. In many developing countries, public sector capacity to respond to modern slavery have been weakened.
Within HTMSE’s network in the UK and around the world, there are many organisations, legal professionals and trafficking experts who are working tirelessly to protect those who are subjected to the heinous crime of human trafficking. This World Day Against Trafficking In Persons HTMSE invites professionals and organisations who are not yet signed up to join this network to help create a streamlined response to cases of human trafficking and modern slavery.
The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has released new statistics which illustrates the high number of victims of slavery that are bound up in those seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Overall, 2022 statistics are high – beginning from the increase in small boat arrivals picked up by first responders at the UK border, to the Duty to Notify process seeing the highest number of reports ever to the Home Office (4,580) – to the highest number of potential victims of modern slavery recorded through the NRM ever (16,938), a 33% increase since the prior year. As such the highest number of slavery cases were recorded in 2022. 88% of reasonable grounds cases (17,000) and 89% of conclusive grounds cases (6,000) that were considered by the competent authorities were deemed positive. This shows that the majority of cases claimed to be slavery, are indeed slavery, and the UK Modern Slavery Act plays a critical role in international human rights justice for those seeking asylum.
Imbedded with political issues surrounding high numbers of immigrants entering the UK, fears arise around the exploitation of this system that is designed to protect victims.
According to NRM statistics, for the first year Albanian nationals were the highest number of referrals per nationality, exceeding UK nationals at 25%, mostly being child potential victims of slavery. Albanian nationals accounted for 27% of potential victims of modern slavery, mostly being adults, and many arriving via small boats to UK shores. This has given rise to backlash at the statistics with rhetoric suggesting Albanian refugees are ‘claiming to be slavery victims’ using the UK Modern Slavery Act. However, migrants also from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria arriving in small boats are usually unable to access visas, passports or conventional safe routes of immigration and are therefore highly vulnerable to the exploitation of human traffickers.
Burmese workers producing F&F Jeans and other clothing for Thai company VKG were subject to conditions of forced labour when supplying the Thai branch of Tesco between 2017-2020. This included illegal pay rates such as £3 per day, employees subject to 99 hour working weeks, ill working conditions such as outdated machinery causing injuries to the employees, and the employer tampering with wage records through control of employee bank cards. In 2020, 136 VKG workers were dismissed when asking to be paid the minimum wage, leading to the inquiry into modern slavery within VKG.
During investigations, police and Thai officials are accused of contrived interviews. It took only one day to interview 114 ex-VKG workers, where victims’ statements were allegedly deleted, they were rushed and ‘cut off’ from finishing sentences. NGOs witnessing the interviews observed that due process was not followed and interviews were ineffective, suggesting they were conducted for appearance rather than to obtain true conclusions of the safety of the VKG employees working conditions.
This landmark lawsuit against Tesco for ‘negligence and unjust enrichment’ is brought forward by Oliver Holland, partner at Leigh Day, representing 130 workers formerly employed by VKG, as well as a 7 year old daughter of an employee who was raped on factory grounds. Tesco does not have day to day dealings with the factory, yet the corporation has encouraged its suppliers to reimburse their employers, and commented on previous compensation paid to VKG workers by the Thai labour court. However, within the remit of the UK, Tesco will face repercussions against the UK Modern Slavery Act for forced labour found within their supply chain. It is critical for corporations to be held accountable for modern slavery within their global supply chains in order to address the profits gained from inequality and human rights abuses.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) records that 20.8 million victims of forced labour are exploited by private enterprise worldwide. Since the reopening of the tourism industry post the coronavirus pandemic, seasonal employment at holiday destinations is under significant strain. This has led to an increase in forced labour in the tourism and hospitality industries of Greece and Cyprus.
Governments of both Greece and Cyprus have looked to solve their labour issues by offering employment to Ukrainian refugees and migrants from non-Eu countries living in migrant camps, of whom 30,000 have social security and VAT numbers. As of June 2022, Cyprus issued 800 foreign labour permits and Greece will adopt this model for the 2023 tourist season.
HTMSE continues to support modern slavery victims and professionals, assisting them by connecting victims with experts in modern slavery across all areas of practice.
We encourage anyone, whether a professional, NGO, charity, business, lawyer, medical practitioner, or other expert or specialist organisation not listed in the HTMSE directory to sign up to create a profile by following this link: https://humantraffickingexperts.com/main/signup.
The increase in cases related to county lines gangs accounts for 16% of cases reported to the NRM, of which most were male victims. This targeted gender accounts for the change in common modern slavery victim profile, with 77% of victims (9,790) being male. 23% of victims (2,923) were female. Alarmingly, 43% of referrals (5,468) were minors, due to high rates of child criminal exploitation. The common demographic of victims by nationality in 2021 were majority UK citizens at 30%, followed by Albanian nationals at 20% and Vietnamese nationals at 8%. The majority of the exploitation occurred in the UK, in the form of labour abuse and criminal exploitation, for example in the illicit drug trade.
These statistics are reported from October 2020 – September 2021, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, due to the coercive nature of modern slavery, these figures do not reflect the actual number of victims recorded. CEO of NGO Unseen UK, Andrew Wallis OBE highlights that 1 in 5 victims of modern slavery chose not to engage with the NRM in the 2021 reporting year, bringing the total number of victims up to nearly 16,000. Engagement with the NRM is vital for victims to be recognised by the state as victims of modern slavery, and have access to protection and support. This means 3190, approximately one fifth of modern slavey victims identified by frontline and border authorities under the Duty to Notify (DtN) process, are still vulnerable to re-trafficking or further exploitation in society. This trend to deny referral to the NRM is 47% higher than 2020, suggesting a rise in mistrust in authorities that prevents victims from receiving the medical, psychological care and justice they are entitled to.
As well as the illicit drug trade, Mexico is increasingly known as a global destination for sexual tourism controlled by the organised crime cartels. Beneath this lies systemic issues with sex trafficking and various forms of labour exploitation of adults and children. Despite being a despicable crime, sexual exploitation is seen as a profitable business because “you can only sell a drug once, but you can sell a woman countless times”, quoting Mario Hidalgo Garfias, a convicted human trafficker from Mexico City in 2015.
Whilst on vacation, many tourists purchase memorabilia clothing and other items without hesitation from sellers on the beach. HTMSE is alarmed to see the high number of minors being used in the familiar context in conditions that contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Many minors are being forced into labour, carrying heavy goods in sweltering heats including clothing, coconuts, and food. Many are laden with huge weights of goods, and are being used to attract tourists to purchase these items. These are not conducive conditions for a child. Tourists are fuelling and normalising this practice, whereas in their country of origin it would be illegal, for example in Britain parents could face prosecution.
It is evident that the internet is increasingly used as a vice for trafficking, either via recruitment on social media, or using crypto-currencies to launder payment. This form of contact is used to anonymously set up employment related traps, target victims through false intimate partnerships, or exercise blackmail and coercion through reaching family members of the victims.
ACTION & RESPONSE
In the most recent reporting period of 2021 Mexico lies in tier 2 of the USDOS Trafficking in Persons report, meaning that it does not meet the basic requirements for combatting human trafficking. However, despite the drawback presented by the pandemic, Mexico has increased efforts since the 2020 reporting period.
In 2020 the Mexican state investigated 332 suspected sex trafficking cases, 12 suspected forced labour cases, and 206 unspecified cases of exploitation. There were a total of 75 federal prosecutions of human traffickers, which accounts for approximately half as many as 2019. Unfortunately, this is likely due to the pandemic as federal and state courts suspended all legal proceedings between March and May 2020. This also hampered efforts of authorities to collect evidence from bars, hotels and sex tourism venues, and halted or slowed requests for information to pursue prosecutions, and disrupted intergovernmental collaboration on existing and new investigations.
Positive efforts in the Mexican response to human trafficking included bolstering the Secretariat of Finance’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) which is a key institution to collect intelligence around trafficking investigations and prosecutions. In July 2020 a cooperation agreement was signed with the National Anti-trafficking Hotline which facilitated the collection of data from calls to trace illicit financial activity connected to trafficking. Flagging several suspicious transactions successfully led to several arrest warrants for human traffickers.
In 2020 the Mexican state provided funding to three victim shelters run by NGOs, but overall their response lacks a victim centred approach. Most states rely on prosecutors to identify and refer victims. State agencies in partnership with NGOs offer medical care, food, and housing in temporary or transitional homes, and other services, such as psychological, and legal services, but this is heavily varied and unavailable in some parts of the country, and often excludes victims or forced labour or male victims of exploitation.
Mexican law provides protection against forced criminality of trafficking victims, however due to issues around formal identification there are potential cases where authorities have detained or jailed victims of trafficking. This includes children involved in gang related criminal activity and migrants in detention facilities, who have been compelled to commit crimes by their traffickers. Furthermore, victims have been withheld justice due to their lack of faith in corrupt authorities and public sector officials.
Furthermore, the “Corazón Azul” or Blue Heart Campaign in Mexico was set up in 2010 in partnership with UNODC which is designed as a ‘pact’ to mobilise social conscience around human trafficking, sexual and other forms of exploitation. It is composed of a set of moral principles for the public to understand and agree to. Annually, buildings are lit up blue to raise awareness. Recently in 2021 there has been significant effort through this campaign to reach indigenous communities who are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
The state of modern slavery remains problematic in Mexico due to high numbers of refugees and migrants looking to transit the vast border into the USA. Exacerbated by the travel pressures of Covid 19, this long-standing problem leaves high-risk populations vulnerable to exploitation of the crime and drug Human Trafficking Across Mexico – US Border that operate across the US-Mexico border.
Furthermore, many of those migrants or Mexican nationals who successfully reach the USA with the aid of traffickers or smugglers are being exploited for their labour. A recent case of trafficking from Monterrey, Mexico – Georgia, USA highlights the problematic agricultural industry in the USA which provides minimal protection for migrant workers, as they are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, and from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Workers are subject to no-minimal pay, unsafe working environments, desolate living conditions, debt bondage, physical and mental and abuse across many farms in Southern American states, including Texas and Georgia.
HTMSE’s managing director, Philippa Southwell, attended the 24-hour Conference on Global Organized Crime, organised by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, to give a talk on forced criminality.
The panel, titled ‘Criminalisation of victims of human trafficking – An overview of domestic and international legal frameworks post UK Modern Slavery Act 2015’, was also attended by Phil Brewer, a specialist advisor on modern slavery at the Human Trafficking Foundation.
To access a recording of the discussion, please register on the 24-hour Conference on Global Organized Crime’s website here.
In the recent publications ‘COP 26: Climate change and modern slavery’, the Commissioner brings together the research and evidence showing that climate change ‘exacerbates vulnerability to modern slavery’, primarily through to climate-induced migration but also that there is a link between slavery and sustainable production. The Commissioner took the opportunity to emphasise that environmental and social issues ‘need not be in competition with each other’.
For the full article, please see the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s website here.