Ministers Must Take Tougher Action To Fight Trafficking ‘Slave Trade’, Say MPs

Ministers must take tougher action to fight trafficking 'slave trade', say MPs

Select committee says enforcement is patchy, prosecution rates are low, and there is little protection for victims

Robert Booth and Rachel Williams, Thursday 14 May 2009 00.05 BST

Britain is facing a resurgence of slavery in the form of a growing human trafficking problem that is not being properly tackled by the authorities, MPs warn today.

Government ministers, judges and police officers are accused of failing to grasp the illegal trade in men, women and children from abroad into exploitation in the UK in prostitution, the drugs trade and other forms of illegal labour including domestic servitude.

The Commons home affairs select committee committee's report, following a year-long inquiry, demands that ministers invest more in police teams to track down victims and bring traffickers to justice. Immigration judges and border officials need to be better educated to recognise trafficking; and there needs to be more safe accommodation and psychological support for victims.

The select committee concludes that “in effect, traffickers may be using the care home system for vulnerable children as holding pens for their victims until they are ready to pick them up”.

The committee's chairman, Keith Vaz, said it had uncovered a “grim picture” in which “[law] enforcement is patchy, prosecution rates are low and there is little protection for victims. What we have is in effect a resurgence of a type of slave trade, yet we have no good information on the scale of the problem,” he said.

The committee said it was “appalled” by the ease with which suspected child victims of trafficking are able to abscond from local authority care, and said the government failed to recognise “the peculiar vulnerability of trafficked children” and too often treated them as illegal immigrants.

Following revelations in the Guardian last week that at least 77 Chinese children who are suspected victims of trafficking have gone missing from a local authority children's home beside Heathrow airport, the committee announced plans for a fresh inquiry into the disappearance of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors from children's homes.

Gordon Brown has already pledged to cut the number of trafficked children who go missing from care.

“We are determined that we do everything we can to ensure we look after the vulnerable young people who fall victim to [child trafficking],” he wrote on Monday in a letter to John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, whose constituency includes the Heathrow home. “In particular, where unaccompanied children enter the care system, we must minimise the risk of them running away and getting drawn back into the control of traffickers. I am determined that perpetrators are brought to justice.”

The committee called for cuts to police funding to be reversed. The human trafficking unit of the Metropolitan police should have its 870,000 a year funding maintained instead of being cut to 400,000 for 2009-10. It also wants the Operation Paladin police team, which aims to identify child victims of trafficking entering the UK via London ports, to be fully rather than partially funded “so that it can continue its vital work”.

It was also highly critical of the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), which was established as a repository of data and to offer support, including a 24-hour helpline. But the MPs reported complaints from witnesses that it has failed to estimate the scale of the problem; it does not sufficiently represent the various anti-trafficking agencies; it is not aware of the rights or needs of child victims; and that recent operations and recent cases had shown a lack of clarity in responsibilities.

The committee said conservative estimates suggest there are at least 5,000 victims in the UK, although some estimates say there are at least 4,000 who work in the sex industry alone. Estimates of the number of people trafficked into the European Union each year range from 100,000 to 800,000.

The Home Office minister, Alan Campbell, said: “Trafficking is by its nature a hidden problem and the UKHTC are currently working to get a clearer picture of the number of people involved. It is an appalling crime and we are doing everything possible to make the UK a hostile environment for the perpetrators of it, as well as protecting victims.”The MPs' report is likely to place further pressure on the government to act against child trafficking. After the use of the Hillingdon assessment centre by traffickers emerged last week, Gordon Brown asked for a report into the problem by late June from the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, and children's secretary, Ed Balls.