Senior Europol officer warns traffickers are exploiting people’s desperation, forcing them into prostitution and slave labour
Vulnerable refugees trudging across Europe in search of sanctuary are being preyed upon by organised criminal gangs intent on forcing them into prostitution and slave labour, one of Europe’s most senior police officers has warned. “Modern, enterprising, organised criminal gangs go where the opportunity is high and the risk is low,” Brian Donald, Europol’s chief of staff, told an international conference on human trafficking in Madrid at the weekend.
Unaccompanied children are at particular risk, Donald told delegates including the Metropolitan police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said more had to be done by the UK to fight trafficking. Only 10 out 43 police forces in England and Wales have specialist anti-trafficking units.
The onset of winter is worsening the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, many of whom are fleeing the civil war in Syria. As the European Union struggles to deal with the influx of refugees, their need for money makes them susceptible to unscrupulous gangs operating along routes, in refugee centres and in destination countries.
Migrants were being “identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, the unaccompanied”, with prostitution and illegal labour being the most likely outcomes, Donald told the Santa Marta conference, organised by the Catholic church.
Children travelling alone or in groups without adults were particularly at risk. European law enforcement agencies had logged at least 7,000 unaccompanied minors among refugees and migrants entering Europe in the recent past, but “that’s nowhere near the actual number,” he said.
Donald said: “In the coming years, the phenomenon of migrants being exploited once they’ve reached the European Union will become more visible. We need to keep on top of the nexus between smuggling gangs and trafficking gangs.”
There was a “tremendous amount of crossover” between those smuggling refugees across borders and gangs ensnaring people for exploitation in the sex trade or as forced labour. A third of organised crime groups involved in moving refugees and migrants across Europe were also engaged in other criminal activities, including the drug trade, money laundering and people trafficking, he said.
Refugee camps were breeding grounds for organised criminal gangs, representatives of the Catholic church, police forces and NGOs from 34 countries across the world heard. The conference was organised by the Santa Marta group, set up by Pope Francis last year to coordinate international initiatives on human trafficking and modern slavery in recognition that countries cannot act in isolation in tackling a major global crime.
British representatives at the conference included Kevin Hyland, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, Home Office minister Karen Bradley, Hogan-Howe and the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
Hyland told the Guardian that the huge numbers of displaced people heading for Europe were “easy prey” for traffickers trading in servitude and sexual exploitation. On arrival in Europe, refugees might feel relatively safe, but if their need for legitimate work was not met, they would soon be “hooked in” by traffickers. “The potential for the traffickers is very high,” he said.
Although those fleeing conflict were especially vulnerable, the main sources of slavery trafficking to the UK were Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania and Poland, the commissioner said. Since beginning work in August, in a post created under the Modern Slavery Act passed earlier this year, he had begun developing “prevention plans” with those countries.
Rescuing victims of human trafficking was a priority, but unless criminal gangs were dealt with and economic issues driving people to risk exploitation were tackled, eradication would be impossible. “When a victim is recovered, another victim will be created. Getting another person is very cheap – the cost of an airline ticket. Supporting victims is a priority, but we need to stop this at source,” Hyland said.
The commissioner said he also wanted to see more convictions in the UK on slavery charges. Last year, there were 130 prosecutions relating to slavery, which was “nowhere near enough”. “The police need to be far more proactive in investigating these crimes,” he added.
Hogan-Howe told the conference that the free movement of labour within the EU had created opportunities for people to find work, but also allowed traffickers to operate more easily. Global cooperation on countering trafficking and slavery was “vital because of the complexities of working across international jurisdictions”, he said.
Bradley, whose ministerial responsibilities cover abuse and exploitation, said progress had been made but there was “still a long way to go before we can end the evil of modern slavery”. The new act was “a powerful signal that the UK takes this seriously”, but legislation was “just one part of the answer”. The UK government was “committed to working with national and international law enforcement agencies and other key stakeholders, such as the church,” she said.
In a message to the conference, Pope Francis said the adoption by the United Nations in September of a new set of development goals had given the world’s states “a new moral imperative to combat human trafficking, which is a real crime against humanity”. Cooperation between representatives of the church and law enforcement agencies was a “decisive step in ensuring that governments reach the victims of human trafficking in a direct, immediate, constant, effective and concrete way.”
The International Labour Organisation estimates 21 million people are victims of forced labour globally, of whom around one in three are children. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in men and boys trafficked for forced labour – a trade which generates illegal profits of about $150bn annually, the ILO says.
People are generally trafficked for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced labour, begging and organ extraction.
Bakhita House: a safe haven for the victims of trafficking
On a quiet west London street, a large Victorian house hides a reservoir of trauma and exploitation. Over the past four months, 15 women who have escaped or been rescued from traffickers or enslavement have passed through its unmarked front door to begin a process of recovery and rehabilitation.
Some are little more than girls who have been forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. The oldest is a 64-year-old who fled civil war only to find herself virtually imprisoned in the UK as an unpaid domestic serf. Some have been repeatedly raped; others have been betrayed by their own families.
Most arrive at this safe house with nothing: no papers, no possessions and often little or no resilience. Three have been pregnant when they arrived; last week, the house saw its first birth.
This is Bakhita House, a safe house for the victims of trafficking run by the Catholic charity Caritas. It describes itself as a “triage centre”, offering a sanctuary for up to three months, as well as practical support, therapy and legal advice tailored to the individual needs of its vulnerable and traumatised guests.
The upper floors of the house are a warren of functional bedrooms and bathrooms, but downstairs there are bright communal spaces, including kitchens, a laundry room and a quiet area for massage and reflexology.
Sisters from the Congregation of Adoratrices, an international order of around 1,100 nuns founded in the 19th century to minister among women working as prostitutes, are at the heart of volunteers from 11 different religious orders providing pastoral care. But, insists Karen Anstiss, the secular former police officer who manages the project, “most of the women don’t know they’re religious sisters – they don’t wear habits and they don’t thrust religion on them”.
Unusually for a trafficking refuge, Bakhita House operates outside the National Referral Mechanism, the government scheme to identify victims of human trade in order to provide support. Some victims distrust officialdom and are reluctant to sign the NRM forms, says Anstiss. In these cases, a practical partnership between Bakhita House and the Metropolitan police comes into play. “Sometimes we’ll get a call from the police to say they’re bringing a woman directly from a raid,” she says.
The project, which opened in June after a year of preparation, has had personal involvement from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who has made the issue of trafficking a priority for the Catholic church in England and Wales. He wants the model of Bakhita House to be replicated elsewhere in the UK and across the world by the global Catholic network of churches, charities and religious orders.
Bakhita House’s 12 beds are a drop in the ocean; last year, the Home Office estimated there were up to 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK. “But it’s 12 beds that didn’t exist a year ago,” says Anstiss. “We’re making progress on the issue. It may not be fast, but it’s moving along the right road.”