The UK home secretary Theresa May has announced a ‘modern anti-slavery bill’ which will be introduced to tackle human trafficking. A new ‘modern slavery commissioner’ will be appointed to monitor the work of law-enforcement agencies. Courts will be given the power to issue ‘trafficking prevention orders’ which will limit the ability of those convicted to own a company, to travel to certain areas and to work with women and young children.
Describing anti-trafficking law as ‘anti-slavery’ is a disgraceful sleight of hand. Anti-trafficking law has more in common with the laws which enforced slavery than it does with those which ended it. If history has taught us anything about human trafficking, it is that the idea of widespread sexual exploitation of immigrants can be used to justify harsh authoritarian clampdowns on people desperate to get to this country by any means. The government’s ongoing legislative clampdown against immigrants in the name of combating ‘human trafficking’ is given its authority by organisations like Amnesty International, which see the rounding up and arresting of foreigners as vital in their fight against ‘modern-day slavery’.
Take Operation Pentameter. This was a police investigation which took place in 2009, and was described as the ‘largest ever police crackdown on human trafficking’. It involved 55 police forces across the UK and was responsible for the arrest of 406 people. It resulted in just 15 convictions for trafficking offences. Only five of those convicted were sentenced on the basis that they had forced anyone into prostitution, while 73 of those arrested were successfully charged with immigration breaches. In other words, 55 police forces across the UK used the idea of trafficked humans to round up and arrest immigrants, most of whom were completely innocent, and then charged around a quarter of them with being here illegally.
The botched Operation Pentameter is typical of investigations purporting to target human trafficking. In the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, an anti-trafficking campaign by right-wing politicians and religious groups targeted the ‘trafficking’ of foreigners into the country before the tournament. German police identified just five cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation, one of which related to a German national.
Despite high arrest rates, convictions in England for human trafficking are similarly rare. In total, there were just 49 successful convictions for trafficking offences, between 2009 and 2011. Twenty-three of these were convictions, in 2009, for sexual exploitation. In 2011 there were only eight convictions for sexual exploitation offences. While the police continue to arrest immigrants in their droves for ‘trafficking offences’ there are still, in Theresa May’s words, ‘embarrassingly low’ conviction rates. These low conviction rates are mirrored across Europe.