Hidden in plain sight: Human trafficking & modern-day slavery

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

Since the awful revelation last November of the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in the back of a refrigerated container lorry in Essex, we have all become much more aware of the extent of people smuggling. 

It begins in what we used to call the ‘third world’, but which should be called ‘the majority world’, where there is poverty, hunger, war, environmental disaster, poor job prospects and limited opportunities for all but the very rich or the very lucky. False promises are made and people leave hoping to better themselves. Nobody mentions the word slavery. Misled by promises of employment and the hope of financial reward, they take the risk of leaving behind their homes and their families.

It is a highly organised and extremely profitable illegal trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on dangerous journeys to the West in the hope of a share in our riches. The terrible truth is that people are more profitable than drugs and represent a less risky trade for the dealers. There are a lot more arrests for drug smuggling than for people-trafficking.

Estimates vary about the numbers involved worldwide. At the low end it’s 21 million people; at the high end it’s 45 million. High or low, these are enormous numbers. In Europe numbers are estimated at around the 3-4 million mark, in the UK at around 136,000. 

If you wonder where they end up, the awful answer is everywhere. Modern slavery is in every town in the country, in occupations where people aren’t paid a proper wage, live in cramped conditions, aren’t properly clothed, have their housing costs deducted from a tiny wage, or aren’t properly fed. They are picking and packing fruit and vegetables, washing cars, working in nail bars, delivering pizzas or leaflets, begging on the streets, in domestic servitude, selling drugs in ‘county lines’ and, of course, in the sex trade. They are even used for organ harvesting.

The churches have been heavily involved in combatting this terrible trade. The Salvation Army is the lead organisation in caring for adult victims; the Church of England has the Clewer Initiative; there is already a safe house in our diocese for rescued victims of trafficking and in the wider Roman Catholic Church we have the Medaille Trust, The Passage and several initiatives in Salford and other dioceses.

The government has also been active. In 2015 it passed the Modern Slavery Act and appointed Kevin Hyland as the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. On Sunday 19 January (1.30-4pm), he will be speaking at the J&P Memorial Lecture at LACE. After his talk we will begin organising the ideas collected about how to do something about this scandal of modern-day slavery. Please come and listen to him, share your ideas and help make a difference. With your help we can do more. We need you.

More about Kevin Hyland: Kevin was a Metropolitan Police chief, the author of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 (the eradication of human trafficking) and led efforts for its inclusion within the UN’s 15-year global goals. In 2018 he was elected as Ireland’s representative to the Council of Europe’s Independent Group of Experts for Trafficking. He is chief advisor to the Santa Marta Group, a London-based partnership between law enforcement agencies, faith groups and civil society that he helped to set up and which was endorsed by Pope Francis at its launch in the Vatican.