Effective or Draconian? An Analysis of the UK's Anti-Human Trafficking Policies
Affecting roughly 21 million people worldwide, forms of forced labour and trafficking are at the forefront of most global human rights conversations. With children constituting over 25 percent of victims of exploited labour represented in domestic work, construction, agriculture and sexual exploitation, this crisis poses a threat to domestic populations worldwide.
Unfortunately, many statistics and data points regarding human trafficking are estimates and the true scale of human trafficking and forced labour remains unknown. Nonetheless, governments worldwide are crafting policies to tackle this international crisis, with developed nations receiving greater expectations for action. Recently, the public has critiqued the United Kingdom’s approach to action and the human rights legislation regarding forced labour and human trafficking.
In a speech delivered on 25 November 2021, the UK’s Deputy Ambassador Deidre Brown spoke on the UK Government and the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's (OSCE) efforts to combat trafficking and forced labour. Brown discussed the tools provided for UK law enforcement to punish perpetrators of trafficking, stating that the government would deal out “a maximum life sentence and support for the police to increase modern slavery prosecutions”. Additionally, she cited the country's National Referral Mechanism which works to identify victims and accommodation, financial help and the necessary health care and legal advice. Finally, Brown mentioned that as of March 2020 “we published the world’s first government modern slavery statement” and the legal requirement that from March 2020 onwards states that “government departments will publish annual slavery statements". The UK has made significant strides in legal advancements to limit human trafficking and forced labour. However, in recent years and months, activists and politicians have highlighted the UK’s various shortcomings in this sector of prevention.
To understand the extent of these shortcomings, one can look to the case of A.N and V.C.L v. the UK. As explained by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI), the case dealt with two underage Vietnamese children. The British police found them working in a cannabis factory. RUSI explained that both minors pleaded guilty on the grounds of controlled drugs production. The pair and their legal representatives looked to Article 26 of the Council of European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings to support their acquittal. The article exempts victims of trafficking from complete responsibility for criminal activity. The UK rejected this appeal and claimed that "its decision to prosecute did not, therefore, represent an abuse of process". The case eventually reached the European Court of Human Rights, which recognised the government to be "in violation" of international human rights law. Based on Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights they found that British authorities failed in their responsibilities as members of a national government in understanding the accused as a victim of human trafficking and forced labour.
Similarly, human rights organisations have taken issue with the UK’s adoption of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which altered the British immigration system and created a new and controversial system for those attempting to seek asylum in the UK. According to The Big Issue, the bill proves problematic because, just as in the case of A.N and V.C.L v. the UK, it discriminates against people who have been forced to commit crimes such as begging and drug dealing, as well as victims of sexual exploitation.
In the context of A.N. and V.C.L v. the UK and the new Nationality and Borders Bill, onlookers and human rights activists hold the British government, with all its preventative human trafficking measures in place, to a higher standard. RUSI, and other activists, cite this legal case and this bill as reasons for more funding in police forces and in training settings as well as a re-evaluation of the current state of the British government’s human anti-trafficking efforts. As trafficking affects even the most developed countries like the UK, the spotlight remains on these governments and their legal action when fully assessing effective global human rights policy.