People Trafficking

My Lords, I was born and brought up in Africa, which has been ravaged by the evils of slavery. In addition to appreciating the remarkable work accomplished by William Wilberforce, I pay tribute to the historical figures General Gordon and Dr David Livingstone, who both died in Africa and did outstanding work against slavery. As a young man, I visited Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, where Dr Livingstone met HM Stanley.

As we all know, it has been 200 years since slavery was abolished in the British Empire, but unfortunately there is a modern form of slavery—people trafficking. This is a rapidly growing scourge that affects countries and families on every continent. Many ask how and why people can be trafficked in this era. Some may be forcibly abducted and brought into the UK, but many victims put themselves or their children in the hands of traffickers to escape poverty and discrimination. This is particularly true of women and children trafficked from the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and central and eastern Europe. They are promised well paid jobs, education and marriage. Many women believe that they will be able to send money back to their families. In reality, they often end up exploited and abused, and escape is very difficult. Traffickers often pay for the cost of their victims’ passage into the UK. Burdened with that debt and unable to secure legitimate employment, the victims are extremely vulnerable. If they refuse to submit to the traffickers’ demands or attempt to escape, they may have their passports confiscated or be subjected to intimidation, violence, torture or rape. Traffickers also make threats of violence against friends and family as a way of ensuring that their victims keep working and do not try to escape.

The Government estimate that there were roughly 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in the UK at any one time in 2003. Some people believe that the number is considerably higher. The suggestion that the number of women being trafficked for prostitution in the UK is on the increase seems to be corroborated by the fact that whereas 10 years ago 85 per cent of women in brothels were UK citizens, now 85 per cent are from outside the UK. According to the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Vienna, human trafficking has become the fastest growing facet of organised crime. It is also incredibly lucrative.

There are numerous cases of migrant workers being trafficked into Britain and exploited. There is unfortunately a new underclass subject to deception, systematic underpayment and appalling living conditions. This is a kind of forced or bonded labour and another form of modern-day slavery. Trafficking to exploit labour involves a number of factors, including the use of deception, intimidation, removal of documents, excessive charges for accommodation and transport, exploitation of someone’s irregular immigration status or the fact that they are in debt in order to force them to work in conditions to which they do not agree. The Government needs to go much further to combat the exploitation of migrant workers.

Few issues are more suited to international co-operation than dealing with human trafficking. I welcome the Government’s decision to sign the European Convention on Human Trafficking, which has yet to be ratified. At the moment, these human beings have no guaranteed protection. They are treated as illegal immigrants, deported and, in many cases, retrafficked. We need safe havens so that these people can be protected.

I was heartened to learn about the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre. It is a government co-ordinated policing initiative based in Sheffield, which acts as a research and intelligence centre and co-ordinates training. I am also pleased to note that the Metropolitan Police has set up a dedicated unit to combat human trafficking. The Government now recognise the importance of legislation to prevent trafficking. For example, the recent UK Borders Bill contains a provision for the extension of the scope of existing trafficking offences, which will implement one of the proposals in the Government’s UK action plan on the trafficking of human beings. However, I am disappointed that the opportunity has not been taken in this Bill to introduce more effective protection for the victims of trafficking.

I should like to see the law on trafficking strengthened and internationalised. I shall put further proposals forward to support the enforcement of the legislation domestically and to consider how we can better protect the victims. I have five proposals. First, experience tells us that the specialisation of police services is effective in fighting new types of crime. We need to cut off the routes of people trafficking into the UK. Therefore, a UK border police force with expertise for intercepting traffickers and victims at our borders should be established. Secondly, I should like to see immigration officials at all airports perform separate interviews for women and children travelling alone with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband. That may identify potential victims of trafficking.

Thirdly, support should be provided for the child and adult victims of trafficking. They should be referred to specialised services that can offer secure accommodation, information in a language that they understand, medical or psychological assistance and a means to communicate with family. This is in line with Article 6 of the UN protocol on trafficking, to which the UK is a signatory. Fourthly, we must prioritise by offering amnesty to users, so that they will come forward if they suspect people have been trafficked. This can be achieved by promoting social responsibility in the UK through public campaigns targeted at potential consumers and employers highlighting awareness of the terrible suffering caused by forced labour and prostitution.

Finally, with regard to bonded labourers, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and national minimum wage enforcement teams should be rigorous in ensuring that labourers are not mistreated. It is essential that the activities of rogue gangmasters are curbed.

In conclusion, I should like to say that in addition to remembering and appreciating the work done by William Wilberforce, General Gordon and Dr Livingstone, we must all work together to combat this modern-day form of slavery. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on the points I have raised.

Updated: 28/08/2009 — 12:33 PM