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UK Anti-trafficking measures 'not fit for purpose' and breach international law

Summary: 
16 June 2010: A major new report by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group finds that the UK’s new anti-trafficking measures are “not fit for purpose” and the government is breaching its obligations under the European Convention against Trafficking.

Press release by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, as published on Anti-Slavery International http://www.antislavery.org/

16 June 2010

UK ANTI-TRAFFICKING MEASURES 'NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE' AND BREACH INTERNATIONAL LAW

The UK's new anti-trafficking measures are "not fit for purpose" and the government is breaching its obligations under the European Convention against Trafficking (1), said a coalition of British human rights organisations today (16 June), as it published a new report on trafficking to the UK.

The report, the first major study of the government's anti-trafficking measures since they launched 14 months ago, found that the government's flagship "National Referral Mechanism" is "flawed" and possibly discriminatory, and operated by "minimally-trained" UK Border Agency staff who "put more emphasis on the immigration status of the presumed trafficked persons, rather than the alleged crime against them".

The 167-page report (2), "Wrong kind of victim?", by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, a coalition including Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International UK and ECPAT UK (3), reviewed 390 individual cases, as well as data from the UK Human Trafficking Centre and figures obtained from freedom of information requests. It found marked disparities in the successful identification of trafficking victims, leading to fears that officials are overly concerned with immigration issues rather than assisting the victims of traumatic crimes, including sexual exploitation and forced labour.

Campaigners say there is clear evidence that criminals are even controlling their victims by warning that they will be seen as "illegal immigrants" not victims, and would be subject to detention and removed from the country or even imprisoned.

The report also criticises Border Agency staff for decision-making showing little understanding of trafficking issues. In one case a West African woman in her twenties was told that though her "experiences" of being forced to have sex with strange men were "extremely unpleasant", this did "not amount to trafficking" because she had failed to escape her tormentors when she had the opportunity. In another case, a woman who for three months was forced to work 18-hour days as a domestic worker was told by officials that because this had happened in 2008 she should now have "overcome any trauma" she had suffered.

The report argues that the government has lost sight of the key pillars of anti-trafficking - identification, protection, prosecution and prevention - with "no meaningful" prevention measures being undertaken and prosecutions of traffickers apparently losing out to prosecutions of possible victims for offences committed under duress (including children who had been forced to work in brothels or cannabis "factories" ). In the nine months to January 2010, for example, only 36 individuals had trafficking offences brought to court, despite the government estimating that some 5,000 trafficked people are currently in the UK. Police officers quoted by the report complain of the "negative effect" of decision-making which can prevent victims assisting with prosecutions. Campaigners are warning that one consequence of the system's failings is that vital intelligence about the activities of trafficking gangs is being lost to the police and other agencies.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

"We pushed hard for the government to sign up to the anti-trafficking convention but the government has botched its attempt to deal with this most despicable of crimes.

"In particular, the identification system is clearly not fit for purpose, with under-trained staff displaying ignorance over what trafficking actually is. It should be overhauled, with other agencies and specialist NGOs brought in and the emphasis switched to victim-protection so that it's not all about hounding people for immigration offences."

The report's analysis of 527 cases referred to the identification scheme between April and December 2009 found marked disparities in outcomes. Seventy-six per cent of referred UK citizens were positively identified as trafficked, while this was only 29% for EU nationals and just 12% for non-EU nationals. The report cautions that this is not necessarily evidence of active discrimination, but its authors call for the appointment of an independent anti-trafficking watchdog to properly check the work of officials.

Anti-Slavery International Director Aidan McQuade said:

"While the current system is undoubtedly staffed by many committed individuals it is important to end the culture of viewing trafficking as a form of immigration crime. This focus has led to arbitrary decisions based on a dubious understanding of trafficking.

"Evidence gathered in this study shows that this is undermining the ability of the police to combat the trafficking gangs who are making fortunes from the misery of others.

"We need a new system guided by a proper implementation of the European Convention against Trafficking. Only then will it be possible to treat trafficking victims compassionately and properly prosecute the serious criminals behind this human rights abuse."

The "Wrong kind of victim?" report is also sharply critical of failures to protect children who may have been trafficked. The government acknowledges that child trafficking is a form of child abuse, but the report questions whether the National Referral Mechanism offers an appropriate or an energetic enough response to protecting children.

Despite the fact that existing local authority children's services professionals are trained in child protection, anti-trafficking officials insist in believing that they too are able to assess children's needs. In fact the report finds that these officials are not the most appropriate or qualified individuals to make judgements about trafficked children, that they are not providing them with legal guardians and are failing to give them the benefit of the doubt when disputes over age arise.

ECPAT UK Chief Executive Christine Beddoe said:

"Children are not 'mini-adults' and attempting to fit them into a system designed for adults is inappropriate; the experiences and needs of children are quite different to those of adult victims. It is essential that children are provided with a legal guardian to ensure that their best interests are always considered."

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group is calling for the National Referral Mechanism to be turned into a multi-agency identification and referral mechanism, allowing the right of appeal and overseen by an independent review system. Campaigners also believe the appointment of an independent anti-trafficking watchdog will help to create properly integrated anti-trafficking measures, with the report noting that in the year to 1 April 2010 over 130 people were referred to services like shelters and counselling entirely outside of the referral mechanism - suggesting that the current system is failing to identify all victims.

ENDS

Notes for editors

(1) Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings, adopted by the UK in April 2009. The convention is the first international treaty obliging states to have minimum standards to assist trafficked people and protect their rights.

(2) To read the summary report click here and to read the full report click here.

(3) The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, made up of nine organisations, has been established to monitor whether the UK is meeting its obligations under the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings. It comprises: Amnesty International UK, Anti-Slavery International, ECPAT UK, Helen Bamber Foundation, Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA), Kalayaan, POPPY Project, TARA and UNICEF UK. In addition, the Monitoring Group works closely with the Anti-Trafficking Legal Project (ATLeP).