When hes got his coat cleaned Alan Bennett should write a play about trafficking
Imagine, like poor Alan Bennett, you’re the victim of a street theft. Someone accosts you, tricks you and steals all your money. You’d be shaken up. You might feel a fool, thinking you’re even partly responsible. Self-reproachingly, you ask yourself “Why wasn’t I more careful?” “How could I be so stupid?” You even begin to feel ashamed and depressed.
But then you pull yourself together. You go to the police. The police pass you on to the “Street Crime Referral Unit” and they start looking at your case and guess what? They start treating YOU like the criminal! What were you doing in that place at that time, they ask? Why didn’t you report it earlier? Are all your documents in order? They decide they’re not. They don’t believe you. You’re detained. There’s talk of deporting you ….
I’ll stop there. This Kafkaesque mini-scenario is my little introduction to the new trafficking report from Amnesty, Anti-Slavery International, ECPAT and six others (more info here).
Across its 167 pages the report essentially tells the story of how the UK government’s efforts to tackle the scourge of people trafficking – that whole vicious business of false imprisonment, sexual or labour exploitation and (often enough) extreme physical or psychological violence – are failing. That’s right, failing. After trumpeting its “crackdowns” on sex trafficking a few years ago, we’ve now got a “National Referral Mechanism” process where under-trained officials say things like:
“It is noted that you have highlighted numerous incidents of non-consensual sex […] and some instants of violence. […] Although this experiences are extremely unpleasant it is considered that this treatment […] does not amount to trafficking in your case”
“It is acknowledged that you may suffer some longer-term effects as a consequence of the experience you may have had. Ultimately, however, you have been alive for almost […] years, of which […] months you have spent with the previous employer. You have also spent nearly […] months, more than twice the length of your claimed exploitation, free of any restriction on your freedom …”
Leaving aside the semi-literate officalese, the cases and procedures analysed in the report suggest that UK Border Agency staff running the system have a shaky grip on what trafficking actually is and what it does to its victims. A West African woman in her twenties (the first quote above) can escape her tormentors only to be refused help because her escape wasn’t made at the first opportunity. Never mind how stunned, traumatised and generally debilitated her ordeal had made her.
After trawling through not-very-clear data obtained from the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield, and after asking a string of FOI questions, the report’s authors find that the anti-trafficking system is run by people who are obsessed with detecting illegal immigrants (“illegals” in the degraded, sneery language beloved of some anti-asylum types).
The system is self-defeating. Trafficking victims are being deterred from even entering an official world where they may end up in jail for minor offences; their captors and exploiters continue to drive the Mercs, unmolested by a frankly frustrated police force unable to gather evidence against them. They’re free to ensnare the next group. Prosecutions for trafficking are extremely low – only 36 individuals were brought to court on trafficking offences in the nine months to January 2010 – this despite the fact there are an estimated 5,000 trafficking victims dotted across Britain.
I expect Alan Bennett would find the situation exasperating. In fact, I’ve always thought Bennett’s cosy Mackintosh-clad exterior conceals a tough-minded writer perfectly capable of tackling the darkest topics. He should definitely crank out a play about how we’re failing to tackle trafficking.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.