Criminal Exploitation in the Context of Homelessness

Criminal Exploitation, Forced Criminality and Homelessness

Homelessness continues to be a major risk factor for individuals’ becoming victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. HTMSE previously analysed the links between homelessness, human trafficking, and modern slavery, and the critical requirement for ongoing, long term support provisions. Homelessness itself leads to an individual having an increased visibility to potential exploiters and therefore an increased vulnerability to becoming a victim of modern slavery. However, homeless individuals can have a range of complex vulnerabilities beyond their homelessness that may include mental health problems, substance addiction, and physical health problems.

Throughout 2019 there was a marked increase in awareness of homeless individuals being approached at soup kitchens, night shelters, and ‘drop-ins’ where they are deceived with promises of work and income. Specialist Modern Slavery and Homelessness organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, have stated that individuals who are homeless are being specifically targeted for exploitation, which in many cases takes the form of criminal exploitation; where the victims are forced to commit crimes. In the case of victims who are homeless, the modern slavery charity Unseen found that the criminal exploitation is most commonly in the form of forced begging, though their exploitation may also involve being forced to commit theft, deal and/or produce drugs, or a number of other criminal acts. Victims of criminal exploitation may be arrested, charged, and even prosecuted and imprisoned for the crimes they have been forced to commit before being formally identified as victims of modern slavery and/or human trafficking and receiving appropriate support. HTMSE has provided extensive training on this area throughout the UK and world.

Criminal exploitation and forced criminality has been an area that has received substantial attention recently across the counter-trafficking and anti-slavery sectors and mainstream media, most notably in the context of ‘county lines’ drug dealing operations. Increases in awareness and guidance for addressing criminal exploitation across law enforcement, legal and local authority professionals; the prevalence of modern slavery and human trafficking across various industries such as the hospitality industry, and in particular new models in the hospitality sector such as ‘AirBnB’; and the links between homelessness and modern slavery, can all be considered positive shifts towards the development of effective strategies to combat modern slavery and human trafficking across society. However, in the context of homelessness and modern slavery individuals may swiftly become trapped in cycles of exploitation. As discussed in HTMSE’s previous analysis of homelessness and modern slavery, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are at an increased risk of becoming homeless without appropriate long term support in place, and homeless individuals have an increased vulnerability to potential exploiters.

The circularity of this issue remains a clear demonstration that a comprehensive multi-sector response is needed to effectively tackle these issues.

 

Doorstep Scams, Rogue Traders, Travelling Sales and Modern Slavery

Human Trafficking and Doorstep Scams

Door to door scams and rogue traders have been points of focus recently for their links with modern slavery and human trafficking. However, the links between door to door scams and modern slavery and human trafficking are not new issues. In July 2015 the Polaris Project published a report entitled ‘knocking at your door: Labor Trafficking on Sales Crews‘, exploring the major issues of modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour in the travelling sales industry. The Polaris Project’s report focused specifically on the US context, but awareness of door to door scams and rogue trader’s links with modern slavery and human trafficking has risen in the United Kingdom too.

 

What are Door to Door Scams and Rogue Traders?

The Neighbour Hood Watch provide a general overview of doorstep scams, including who is likely to be targeted by doorstep scammers and what sort of scams might be involved. They identify typical doorstep scams involving ‘home improvements’, where an individual will knock on the door of their victim, without warning, and explain that their home is in need of improvement works, such as gardening, re-wiring, re-roofing etc, and that this work is extremely urgent. However, more recent incarnations of these traditional scams include installing solar panels, exploitation of internet connections, and the creation of false technical service provider adverts on search engines. Aside from these typical doorstep scams, the Neighbourhood Watch also links apparent doorstep sales pitches with distraction burglary and identity theft.

 

Links to Modern Slavery

Door to door scams of the kind noted above are being increasingly identified as being undertaken by victims of modern slavery. Criminal gangs will target vulnerable individuals who are held by the gang and forced to work for little or no pay, with one reported instance stating that a victim had been forced to work long hours 7 days a week for food and tobacco.  These patterns broadly mirror the findings of the Polaris Project’s 2015 report, which found vulnerable young people in need of employment would be offered the chance to work for a travelling sales company. Once in the ’employ’ of the company the victim would be moved around the country, often under threat of violence and/or abandonment, and forced to work for no wages.

Debt bondage can be a common feature of modern slavery and human trafficking involving doorstep sales, scams and rogue traders. Vulnerable victims are initially offered shelter, food, support, and transport, which gets tallied against them as a debt. Continued reliance on the traffickers for these provisions adds to the debt, as well as failures to meet randomly assigned sales quotas.

The noted increase in victims of modern slavery being used to carry out door to door sales and scams has led to authorities calling for greater vigilance from consumers, both to be careful of new incarnations of old scams, but also of who is the individual apparently carrying them out.

HTMSE’s Founder and Director Appears Before Home Affairs Select Committee on Modern Slavery

Earlier this year our founder and director Philippa Southwell was called to give oral evidence as a legal expert in the Home Affairs Select Committee Modern Slavery Inquiry. As well as giving oral evidence our director Philippa also gave written evidence. Issues that were raised during the inquiry concern the Modern Slavery Act 2015, in particular the section 45 modern slavery defence and excluded schedule 4 offences, and section 54 corporate modern slavery compliance. Also of note were concerns regarding the exploitation of British national minors involved in child criminal exploitation in the forms of forced drug possession, robbery, burglaries, and weapons running. Philippa gave legal analysis on all of these topics. Further areas of focus by the inquiry were:

  • The detention of Modern Slavery victims in immigration removal centres, and the adequacy of policy in relation to victims of modern slavery and human trafficking being held in immigration detention centres.
  • The role of the independent anti-slavery commissioner and the relationship between the different law enforcement agencies, e.g. the police, NCA, GLAA, etc, with the national referral mechanism was a major focus of the evidence given by law enforcement professionals and the former Independent UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
  • and, Victim, and victim support services’, perspectives on policy and support available to victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

The evidence for the inquiry was presented as a combination of oral and written evidence and is drawn from a wide variety of professionals and organisations representing a broad spectrum of sectors. At present those who have given evidence include legal practitioners from a wide range of specialisms; the NGO sector; law enforcement professionals and organisations, including the Home Office, NCA, Local Authorities and multiple police forces; Academic institutions and the research sector; various corporate bodies; and multiple individual experts and specialist organisations.

The Home Affairs Select Committee Modern Slavery Inquiry is ongoing, with oral evidence continuing to be heard. The final findings have yet to be announced. Both the written and oral evidence that have been heard as part of the inquiry, including those submitted by Philippa Southwell, can be found here.

Trafficking Victims Forced Into Illicit Massage Business

There are over 9,000 known illicit massage parlours within the USA, with an estimated annual revenue of $2.5 Billion. This accounts for the second highest bracket of human trafficking.

Workers ​in illicit massage parlours are often criminalised or punished for a job they may have been forced into. While some sex workers make the conscious decision to enter the line of work, many within the illicit massage business are victims of human trafficking and therefore work under conditions of force, coercion, fraud and deceit. Due to the underground nature of the business, crime lords and business owners have the ability to protect themselves and their own identities amongst the vast network of people involved. This poses a major issue as employees lower in the supply chain bear the consequences, on top of working under inhumane conditions.

Trafficking cases within massage parlours accounted for the second highest bracket in the USA in 2017, (to escort services as the first) with 2,949 out of 32,000 cases of trafficking recorded by National Human Trafficking Hotline. There are over 9,000 known illicit massage parlours within the USA, with an estimated annual revenue of $2.5 Billion.

However, these figures are a small estimation in the total scope of the problem. Naturally it is a crime that is difficult to quantify, as victims often do not know they are being taken advantage of or are manipulated into keeping quiet​, through threats and control mechanisms​. The victims are statistically most often women from China or South Korea, in their 30s-50s who have had children, speak very little English and are in positions of debt or financial pressures, in which they would have been taken advantage of by seeing this opportunity.

The perpetrators may use these vulnerabilities to fraudulently or deceitfully recruit women. The recruitment advertising often hides the sexual element of the work and also understates the pay, leading victims into debt to their traffickers. In addition, they may use coercion, legal and emotional manipulation, cultural shaming or deportation threats to force victims into commercial sex on an on going basis. Typical scenarios may be when women are told these circumstances are “normal in the USA” or “police are corrupt and will not help them”, or using blackmail by threatening to tell victim’s families of their sexual experiences. Their access to money, communication and national identification are most often confiscated.

The underlying cause of illicit massage businesses is to feed larger crime networks. ‘Front’ businesses are operated, including nail salons and laundromats, in order to launder money through and move victims between. However customers who engage in this business create the demand and therefore sustain the business.

According to the Polaris Project report, there are some obvious indicators as to which parlours are operating commercial sex, even if they do not openly advertise it. If they do, they promote to primarily male clientele through online sites such as Backpage.com and Craigslist. They will typically offer lower market price reflecting the wages of the women, if any. There will be private presentation of the business, often with windows covered and locks on doors with buzzer entry only. A significant indicator of trafficked victims is when the women live on site of the parlour.

The most effective way of combating trafficking in the massage industry is effective and local-national scale legal framework, with increased risk for the traffickers themselves rather than their employees forced into criminality or prostitution, with thorough law enforcement and consistent regulation. In the USA, 46 states reference industry standards for massage orientated businesses, yet these are usually only regulated on county or city level. Business operations including open hours, profit transparency, landowner responsibility should be enforced, and online advertising banned. On a broader scale, cross-state investigations into trafficking and crime rings should aim at the root of the issue, as well as avoiding media framing of ‘sex workers’ as the criminals rather than victims.

UN Finds Ongoing ‘Alarming Rates’ of Child Soldier Recruitment 

UN Photo/Tobin Jones A young child looks on as older boys play football next to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Mogadishu, Somalia.
UN Photo/Tobin Jones A young child looks on as older boys play football next to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Mogadishu, Somalia.

International attention has been brought to the issue of child soldiers as the United Nations released findings of high recruitment statistics, despite progress made last year. According to the United Nations, ‘’the global commitment to end the use of children in armed conflict led to the release and reintegration of more than 5,000 children in 2017’’. 

In 20 countries analysed by Virgina Gamba, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, ‘’tens of thousands of boys and girls are still being recruited, kidnapped, and forced to fight or work for military groups or armed forces at ‘alarming rates’.” The main goal is to prevent children from being recruited from within conflict zones, as their opportunities become limited once exploited in this environment and exposed to violence and trauma which ‘shapes their identity’. 

Reintegration is a sensitive process which requires ‘‘strong political and financial commitment’’. Once freed from armed forces, children are rehabilitated through education and training, medical and psycho-social support to cope with anti-socialisation they may have learned. There are questions around the effectiveness of international efforts and it is stressed that each case must be dealt with individually, the causes must not be assumed to be ideological, interventions must be long term and children treated with autonomy.

Read further on these findings of child soldiers in UN News.