LONDON (TrustLaw) - The UK needs to do more to raise awareness about the risk of British children being trafficked abroad, a report by the Council of Europe says.
Experts from the European human rights watchdog have also expressed concern about children trafficked to the UK going missing from local authority care and cases of trafficking victims being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for immigration offences.
“More should be done to raise awareness of internal trafficking and the risks of trafficking of British nationals abroad, with a special emphasis on trafficking in children,” the study says. “More attention should also be paid to raising awareness of the risks of trafficking in men.”
The report is the Council of Europe's first assessment of how well Britain has implemented the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking, which came into force in 2009.
The convention - the first European treaty to address trafficking - aims to prevent trafficking, protect the human rights of its victims and prosecute traffickers.
Between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2011, 497 people were recognised as trafficking victims in the UK. Of that number, 225 were women and 109 were girls - most of them trafficked for sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.
TrustLaw spoke to Jan van Dijk, one of the authors of the report by GRETA (Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings), about its main findings, the role specialist prosecutors could play and the rise in internal trafficking.
Q: What are the most important findings of this report as they relate to women and girls, the majority of trafficking victims?
A: It's not exclusively women and girls, but still the overwhelming majority of the victims of human trafficking nowadays in the UK are indeed female. What is perhaps more unexpected is that almost half of these female victims are girls. We (also) find quite a sizeable proportion of girls who are trafficked internally in the UK for sexual exploitation.
Q: What other issues would you highlight from the report?
A: What we have found very worrying is that about 10 percent or even more of victims identified by the system, who are minors, go missing at one stage and we have reason to suspect and actually we know in some cases, it is because they return to the trafficker. Although they have been identified by the system, they end up once again victims of exploitation. Also in that group there is a high proportion of girls.
We have a feeling (that the problem) results from the decentralised approach that has been taken in the UK where it is in the hands of the local authorities to provide ... foster parents or to put them in institutions. But the local authorities are not up to this task. Some of them rarely come across these situations, and the UK as a country has not put in place sufficient specialised institutions with highly trained staff to deal with this very problematic victim group.
In some other countries that we have visited - for instance, Austria - the central government has set up one or two special institutions where they try to give these girls as much freedom as possible but also - and this is really a priority - to protect them against the traffickers. And that requires highly specialised know-how which I think has to be provided centrally.
Q: What can the UK authorities do to better identify victims of trafficking?
A: We have recommended that the government should provide ongoing training programmes for all the key officials, so this could be the people working at customs, border control, police officers. They have to be made aware of the cues, the small indicators that they have someone before them who might be a victim ... (These include) if people don't have their own passports, (if) they are disorientated - these kinds of signs are common across Europe. This sensitisation is not a one-off thing but requires a lot of investments in permanent education - and that's where improvements can still be made.
Q: What can the UK do to reduce demand for people who are trafficked for domestic servitude or labour exploitation?
A: One concern that we have expressed is that there was a system in place to screen people applying for visas for domestic work. That system has been changed just in April. It has been made stricter. It now (does not allow) domestic workers to switch employers. Many NGOs, and we are inclined to agree with them, are worried that this system is not an improvement but could actually increase the opportunities for the employers to exploit the domestic workers because they ... cannot just switch employers. So this might put them in a more vulnerable position. (It) is something the government should closely monitor because, if that is indeed the case, this new legislation is totally counter-productive.
Q: What else have you noticed about the conviction rates in the UK for trafficking offences?
A: There are two other issues ... in our report: large numbers of victims identified on the one hand, and a very low number of successful prosecutions. Another concern we have raised is that very few victims of trafficking in the UK receive compensation either from the offender or from the state ... although it is a Convention obligation to ensure that these possibilities are in place and are used.
Q: What can Britain do to secure more convictions?
A: What we've seen in a lot of countries is that the moment you establish squads of specialists within a police force then the number of successful investigations goes up. In the UK, I think it's only the Met (London police force) that has a specialised unit for this. One possible approach would be to set up similar specialised anti-human trafficking units in other forces in the country. That would certainly give a boost, I think, to the number of successful investigations. And also - it might be a good model to be looked at in other countries - to have specialised prosecutors who really understand the ins and outs of these cases and can make a convincing case before the court. There again we know that if a country starts to have specialised prosecutors that has almost an immediate impact on the number of successful prosecutions.
Q: How worrying is it that the UK's anti-trafficking strategy does not cover trafficking within the country or from the UK to other countries?
A: We have heard from NGOs that this indeed is an emerging problem but it's not yet covered by the official strategy, so that's obviously a gap. The government now has to consider whether they want to review their policies to see whether they can address (what is) an emerging problem.