Vulnerable women face becoming victims of modern slavery — and the government is failing them.
For many, the term “slavery” is a solely historical term. Yet, in 2020, slavery and human trafficking constitute a $150 billion (roughly £125 billion) a year global criminal enterprise — the second largest after the drug trade. It is generally defined as the recruitment of individuals through force, coercion, and threat for the means of exploitation, and includes practices such as human trafficking, forced prostitution, forced labour, and domestic slavery. The touchstone of the modern slavery enterprise is the vulnerability of its victims. Marginalised groups — particularly those living in poverty, with little education, or migrating to a new country — may have few other options and are therefore key targets for those ‘recruiting’ people into slavery.
There is a starkly disproportionate impact on women and girls. Women make up 71% of all victims of modern slavery worldwide, including 99% of all victims of forced sexual exploitation, 84% of forced marriage victims, and 58% of all forced labour victims. In their report ‘Stacked Odds’, Australian anti-slavery charity Walk Free have outlined the role of gender inequalities that exclude women from exercising power and agency, increasing their vulnerability to slavery. This includes a lack of access to education and control over finances, patriarchal norms denying women control over their own bodies, and a higher risk of gender-based violence. The impact of these factors is that women and girls are more likely to be forced into exploitative work conditions due to a lack of other options — or, in some cases, to be sold into slavery by family members.
This vulnerability is increased for migrant and refugee women in Europe, who are particularly visible as sex workers, garment workers, and domestic workers in private homes. Women attempting to reach the UK are especially vulnerable to falling into “debt bondage” by traffickers who force women to repay the transport costs through prostitution, forced labour or domestic slavery, whilst others are ‘simply’ tricked by false promises of paid work abroad. British ‘employers’ of migrant and refugee women trapped in slavery often hide their passports so that they cannot leave, and capitalise on their lack of English skills and their unfamiliarity with their rights in the UK and the services available to them. Women are unable to seek help — or unaware of what help is available — and remain trapped, often being subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy has exacerbated the conditions that can encourage such exploitation. The High Court recently ruled as unlawful the treatment of potential trafficking victims under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework for identifying slavery victims. Victims are often treated as “illegal immigrants” and therefore denied access to employment and basic services, threatening them with detention or deportation and making them vulnerable to entering further exploitative work in order to survive. Asylum seekers face a similar situation — many whose asylum claims are rejected are not immediately deported (or deported at all) but still lack access to work and support, forcing many into slavery. At the same time, the duty of public services to report suspected “illegal” immigrants prevents many victims from seeking help due to a fear of being treated as criminals and detained or deported, rather than protected as victims of a horrific crime. Traffickers often take advantage of the hostile environment as a form of coercion and control, withholding important documents and threatening victims with exposure, arrest and deportation.
These risk factors for women have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in terms of the vulnerabilities created by disruptions like unemployment and debt, and the subsequent opportunities created for traffickers. Whilst reports in June stated that the number of suspected slavery cases had fallen as a result of the pandemic, cases of slavery have become more difficult to detect and track. This is due not only to the reduced capabilities of essential services, but to innovations by perpetrators — such as the increased use of the internet for recruitment and exploitation — that are pushing the practice even further underground.
As perpetrators continue to take advantage of the hostile environment and the pandemic, there is a clear need for measures that protect rather than criminalise victims, provide better economic support, and help women to understand their rights and the alternatives available to them.
JAN Trust is committed to educating and empowering migrant women. We provide women with advice and guidance on a range of issues such as immigration and employment, help them to understand their rights and the support available to them, and encourage them to develop important skills for life and employment, such as English and IT skills.