What are human trafficking and human smuggling?

Sometimes used interchangeably, human trafficking and human smuggling are in fact different criminal acts:

  • Human trafficking is where a victim is coerced or deceived into a situation where they are exploited. This exploitation can include: forced labour; forced criminality; the removal of organs (organ harvesting); domestic servitude; or sexual exploitation.
  • Human smuggling (also known as people smuggling) occurs when an individual seeks the help of a facilitator to enter a country illegally. The relationship between both parties ends once the transaction ends. A facilitator could assist an individual by providing services such as transportation or fraudulent documents.

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery, whereas human smuggling is not. The UK has had a strategy to tackle modern slavery in place since 2014.

UK’s new immigration system

Since 1 January 2021, the UK has operated a points-based immigration system. The UK Government website explains this “treats EU and non-EU citizens equally and aims to attract people who can contribute to the UK’s economy”.

When it announced the system in February 2020, the Government said the points-based immigration system aimed to reduce overall levels of migration but would also give priority to “those with the highest skills and greatest talents”. The Government said the new system would not “introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route”, arguing that “we need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation”.

Potential impact on human trafficking and human smuggling

Shortage of low paid labour

Several organisations have expressed concerns about possible unintended consequences of the new system. For example, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an independent civil-society organisation, has said the new system could lead to a shortage of labour in sectors such as hospitality and agriculture. This, it fears, might “spark an increase in the number of migrants working in the country illegally, both of their own free will and under duress”. The Global Initiative has also argued that people who enter countries illegally are “particularly vulnerable to exploitation by organised crime groups (OCGs) and informal employers”.

Similarly, Emily Kenway, a senior policy adviser at the NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation, has expressed concern about the consequences of reducing legal routes of entry. She argued that “if you take away the legal routes, people are just going to fall into the hands of traffickers”.

The Global Initiative believes such a situation could drive the coercion and abuse of workers once they arrive in the country. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants agrees this is a concern. It has argued that the new system could see more people overstaying their visa for a variety of reasons, putting them at risk from abusive employers and trafficking schemes as they become undocumented.

Britain in Europe voiced similar concerns in a report. Commenting on the report’s findings, the lead author Dr Dagmar Myslinska, an immigration and commercial litigation lawyer and lecturer in law at Goldsmiths, summarised the situation:

We can anticipate that tighter restrictions will lead to a severe shortage of workers, particularly in sectors such as social care, farming, food processing, hospitality and construction. Worker exploitation will be worsened by employer sponsorship requirements and a lack of access to social benefits and the imposition of health surcharge fees will further negatively impact immigrants’ lives. We can certainly expect more immigrants to be pushed ‘underground’, with all the risk that entails.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has said labour shortages in certain areas could be filled by recruiting “economically inactive” people, or through using the new routes set out for high-skilled migrants. Ms Patel also highlighted Government policies to help manage labour shortages, including a fast-track health visa and extending the seasonal workers pilot to allow farmers to hire up to 10,000 workers in 2020.

Irish border

Several organisations have highlighted the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (NI) as a specific area of concern. For example, the Global Initiative has argued that it could become “an increasingly popular conduit for human trafficking”.

In November 2020, the House of Lords European Union Security and Justice Sub-Committee heard similar concerns about the border in an evidence session. Mark McEwan, Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable and lead for EU exit, highlighted there are 83 categorised OCGs operating in NI, 16 of which have cross-border links. He explained there were already cases where OCGs had trafficked victims into Ireland and then moved them on through NI into Great Britain (GB). He warned that there was a risk that this could increase “as security tightens around other ports or there is a perception that security is tightening at other ports in GB”. However, he also said that joint work with An Garda Síochána (the national police service of the Republic of Ireland) and PSNI would aim to combat this issue, with more “energy, resource and prioritisation” put in.

Dr Amanda Kramer, lecturer at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, said in her committee evidence that the NI/Ireland border was “very porous” and that she believed OCGs would exploit “any opportunities that arise”. Dr Vicky Conway, lecturer at Dublin City University agreed, stating that “the risks of increased criminality are real”, including in relation to human trafficking.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Robin Walker, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, acknowledged that OCGs operate on either side of the Irish/NI border. He said that OCGs would look to exploit “any new arrangements at the end of the transition period”. However, he said that work would continue to address this:

I can assure you that operational partners such as the PSNI, the National Crime Agency and HMRC work tirelessly to tackle these challenges and potential challenges alongside their Irish counterparts to keep communities safe from the harm caused by organised criminal groups. That work will absolutely continue.

Chris Philp, Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, has also said that work would continue to address the issues of human trafficking and human smuggling, stating that “this is an area where we can, must and will go a great deal further”.

Ireland’s national police force has announced that it will be working to stop OCGs taking advantage of any post-Brexit changes. Garda superintendent, Liam Geraghty, has announced that there would be an increased roving presence along the border. He added “we are very conscious that any change that will come into place has the potential for OCGs to try and take advantage”. This follows an increased in the number of officers posted along the border region by 20 percent since 2016.

Government’s strategy to address modern slavery

The 2020 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery outlines the UK Government approach, alongside the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive, to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking:

  • Pursue: prosecute and disrupt individuals and groups responsible for modern slavery.
  • Prevent: prevent people from engaging in modern slavery, either as victims or offenders.
  • Protect: protect vulnerable people from exploitation and increasing safeguards and resilience against this crime.
  • Victim identification and support: reduce the harm caused by modern slavery through improved victim identification and enhanced support.

It also highlighted its focus on an international response to modern slavery and upstream prevention.

Looking to the future, the Government said it would continue to build on the “world-leading” progress it has made. It also set out several actions it would continue to develop (such as its evidence base on modern slavery) and new measures it is consulting on (such as a single enforcement body for employment rights).

In its 2020 policy paper announcing the new points-based immigration system, the Government set out its continued commitment to “protecting individuals from exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers”. Priti Patel has since argued new border controls would make the UK safer:

We will also seize this historic opportunity to make the UK safer and more secure through firmer and fairer border controls.

Cover image by TheOtherKev at pixabay.