The UK is a destination country for the many women, children and men who are trafficked here from around the world for the purposes of sexual slavery, forced criminality, and forced labour. There are also many vulnerable British nationals who are targeted and exploited in the same way.
We know that trafficking in the UK is on the increase, and much more must be done to ensure both that more victims are identified and removed from their traffickers and that they receive the correct support to help them to recover from their experiences.
The UN’s World Day Against Trafficking is designed to promote awareness of this problem and to put much-needed pressure on the British government to do more in its power to prevent this grave violation of people’s human rights.
As a Public Law Solicitor specialising in bringing Judicial Review challenges and civil claims on behalf of victims of trafficking. The majority of my clients are children and women, both from the UK and abroad, who have been trafficked into sexual slavery in brothels around the country or who have been forced to produce or to deal drugs such as crack cocaine, heroin and cannabis.
A common characteristic shared by all of the victims that I have represented is that they are particularly vulnerable people and their traffickers exploited that vulnerability to gain control over them.
For some, this vulnerability is related to a disability, for others it’s their mental health, poverty, or neglect. Each victim is rendered even more vulnerable after they are trafficked and enslaved, because of the abuse they have suffered. The impact on these victims is far-reaching and will impact the rest of their lives.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has publicly stated that it is not generally in the public interest to prosecute victims of trafficking, however I have seen many victims who have received prison sentences for crimes they were forced to commit. A number of these are children who have been criminalised as a direct result of their trafficking, which can make it impossible for them to ever fully recover from the ill-treatment that they experienced from a very young age.
For example, J is a British male who has learning difficulties. He was selling Class A drugs for a criminal gang after being recruited at 17 years old. He was arrested and the police found two mobile phones on him, which were used as evidence for the prosecution.
During the police investigation, the officer in charge stated that J was being controlled by the gang and that the text messages on the phones were threatening. In his opinion, J was a victim of a county lines drug operation. Another officer also noted that J appeared scared of the people he worked for.
Despite all of this, J was not referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM - a Government body, which is designed to identify and protect victims of trafficking) and was instead prosecuted.
J was convicted and sentenced to an 18 month Detention Training Order, nine months of which he spent in custody. During his sentence, he was referred into the NRM and the Government formally recognised him as a victim of trafficking a few months after he was released.
Had J been put into the NRM before his prosecution, he would have been protected from prosecution because he was a child victim of criminal exploitation.
In another case, C was recruited into a criminal gang at 13 years old. He was arrested after shooting one of the gang elders when he was only 16 years old. The gang elder, who was an adult, was trying to force C to keep drugs and guns at his grandmother’s house, but C had refused.
C got into an argument with the gang elder and shot him. The man was seriously injured, but survived. C was arrested and charged with attempted murder.
Ultimately, C was convicted of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life, possessing a controlled drug and wounding with intent. He was sentenced to just over seven years in custody.
I met C just before he was due to leave custody – he has now been referred into the NRM and we are waiting for a positive decision.
Both C and J might have avoided prosecution had they been referred into the NRM earlier, however the CPS frequently decides to prosecute people who have been formally recognised as victims of trafficking.
J was unfortunately re-trafficked by the same gang after he left prison in 2018. He was kidnapped and forced back into drug dealing. He was arrested again, and a second referral into the NRM was made. He was eventually recognised by the government as a victim of trafficking. Despite this, the CPS decided that it was in the public interest to continue to prosecute J and his criminal case is ongoing.
Many of my clients who are foreign nationals are also arrested and prosecuted by the CPS for crimes that they were forced to commit. Women and young girls are frequently trafficked to the UK from all over the world and forced into sexual slavery in brothels. Children, both male and female, are brought here, often from Vietnam or China, to work in cannabis farms. All too often, these victims are arrested by the police and charged for prostitution or drugs offences without being properly identified as victims of trafficking.
In another case, T is a young Vietnamese woman who was brought to the UK as a child and forced into prostitution. This continued for many years, and she suffered a great deal of physical abuse and mental trauma as a result. She was later forced into criminality by the same people, and she was arrested by the police in a cannabis farm in 2019. She was charged with drugs offences and sentenced to prison. After she had served her sentence, the Home Office tried to deport her to Vietnam.
T has no family or friends in Vietnam who could help her. Had she been deported, she would almost certainly have been re-trafficked by the same people who targeted her when she was a child. She has now been released and the UK Government has found her to be a victim of trafficking. She is receiving specialist support, but her recovery is likely to take many years.
All of these victims of human trafficking have been failed by Government bodies which are in place to defend and protect vulnerable individuals like them, including the police, the Home Office, and the CPS.
There is a great deal of progress that must be made to ensure that the legal system and public bodies work as they should to end the enslavement of people in the UK and around the world.
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