Written by for The Conversation
Recent government figures estimate that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK today. A large majority of these people are trafficked in from abroad. And, as the government report shows, a significant proportion of this group, perhaps even most of them, are themselves EU citizens.
While there is currently great uncertainty about how Brexit will unfold, it seems highly likely that the final settlement will involve some reinstatement of immigration controls between the UK and the EU. So, one important question is how this might affect the flow, identification, and protection of people trafficked into the UK.
Our understanding of the precise role played by migration controls in human trafficking is patchy. This is partly because trafficking is by its nature hard to measure. It’s partly because there is, as yet, no systematic research of the sort that would produce reliable evidence. And it’s partly because the increasingly politicised nature of the debate confuses an already incomplete picture.
Nevertheless, the need to migrate to escape danger, oppression and/or poverty and the restrictions placed on such migration are generally considered features common to trafficking experiences. For example, in recent years we have seen frequent assertions of a causal connection between tough border controls and increased reliance of people on illegal routes and threatening individuals.
The zealous enforcement of border controls has also been shown to hamper the identification of victims of human trafficking. Under both the Council of Europe’s Convention against Trafficking, and the UK’s most recent guidance, border forces must be proactive in spotting potential victims at the border.
But the border force’s singular focus on enforcing migration controls can make officers blind to indicators of victimhood, including some specific types of behaviour and responses to questioning, as well as interaction with travel partners. Officers looking to exclude as many illegal migrants as possible can end up focusing too much on the credibility of the travellers’ stories and not enough on their vulnerability. The consequences of the misidentification of victims of trafficking as illegal migrants can be detention, deportation and re-trafficking.