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Migrants and the global epidemic of human sex trafficking

Written by
Maddie Grounds, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
11 August 2020

The arrest of socialite and long-time Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell at the end of last month has revitalised anti-trafficking agendas in public and political spheres around the world. The chilling news of Jeffrey Epstein's international trafficking ring last year exposed a web of sickening sex crimes, entangling powerful political figures and socialites into an industry whose traffickers gain nearly $100 billion in profits a year at the expense of exploiting vulnerable human beings.

Cited as one of the world's fastest growing crimes, human trafficking refers to the exploitation of individuals through force, coercion or fraud, for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour. Yet, despite the industry's growth into epidemic proportions, statistics showing the crime's magnitude could represent just a small proportion of the industry's chilling reality.

A crime behind closed doors

Of the identified 24.9 million victims of forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector and 4.8 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation, globally. According to estimations, women and girls account for around 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry.

In the UK, data revealed 772 cases of women and girls being referred as victims of trafficking in the first quarter of 2019 alone. Of these people, 394 were victims of sexual exploitation while 77 were trafficked under the 'domestic servitude' category. Yet, the number of officially recorded human trafficking victims is alarmingly minimal in comparison to the actual number of victims of trafficking in the UK, with the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimating the real figure to be in the 'tens of thousands'. In fact, the 2018 Global Slavery Index believes the number of suspected victims of trafficking and modern slavery in Britain to have risen tenfold from 13,000 in 2013 to 136,000 in 2018. Although the highest on record, only 6, 993 potential victims were actually identified in 2018.

These discrepancies in numbers are often due to the very nature of human trafficking. Survivors, particularly those who are minors, are often found to stay silent due to feelings of shame, duty or fear of further abuse. For instance, Epstein's now infamous 'guerrilla pimping' (a tactic that involved verbal threats, aggression and physical violence to coerce the victim into compliance) is a key example of the way in which traffickers often manipulate victims into situations where they feel they are unable to report their crimes.

The Susceptibility of Migrants

Data from the NCA has suggested that potential victims of trafficking referred in the UK in the period April-June 2018 originated from 81 different countries. An overwhelming number of these were sexual exploitation cases, involving asylum seekers bound to their smugglers or allowed entry on a Spouse visa after being forced into marriage.

According to referral statistics, Chinese, Nigerian and Vietnamese victims are the most susceptible to as falling through the cracks of Britain's immigration system. In these circumstances, women and girls are smuggled by gangs of traffickers, lured in by the promise of finding refuge in the UK. These people are then trafficked once they arrive in the UK, often placed in forced relationships or forced prostitution.

Widespread atrocities like these should force our government to examine the very institutions that allow migrant women to slip through the cracks of the UK's immigration system, most notably the hostile precedents set by the Home Office.

Hostility over protection

Whilst it is the Home Office's responsibility to create a safe environment for trafficking survivors, the institution's 'culture of disbelief' towards immigrants instead exhibits a systemic prioritisation of reducing immigration numbers over tackling human rights abuses.

Both the legislative goals of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to 'enhance support and protection for victims' and the introduction of the National Referral Mechanism in 2014 fail to sufficiently tackle the pervasion of trafficking in the UK. One report by JRS UK found that the NRM – a system used to determine whether an asylum seeker is a victim of trafficking – presents 'good reasons for thinking that the Home Office's interest in immigration control undermines the system for identifying and supporting victims, resulting in their continued detention.'

For example, official government guidance claims that victims of human trafficking, who get rich from being sexually exploited in the UK can be refused asylum, stating that 'a woman who returns having obtained 'wealth', regardless of how it is obtained, may not encounter negative social attitudes because she has fulfilled her family's and community's expectations.'

What's more, shocking ramifications of Theresa May's 2012 Hostile Environment Policy revealed institutional racist and xenophobic practices in the UK: an investigation by Liberty and Southall Black Sisters revealed a secret data-sharing ring in which police forces were reporting abuse victims to the Home Office at the end of 2018. In fact, the 2014 Immigration Act actively encouraged protective service-providers – such as the police and the NHS – to report victims and witnesses of crimes seeking police protection and urgent medical attention to immigration enforcement.

Eradicating the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of migrant women in the UK starts at the elimination of the hostility that is currently embedded in the structures created to protect them. Immigration policies which favour the genuine concern of trafficking victims must be implemented, with those working at every level of immigration work receiving comprehensive education on how to recognise the signs of trafficking and modern slavery. The Epstein case shows that trafficking can happen anywhere, by anyone, to anyone. Let's give the victims what they deserve: safety, compassion and belief.