Migration Pulse

Going Beyond Borders: Tackling trafficking at source does not just mean working ‘upstream’

The UK is right to look to work with countries of origin to prevent human trafficking. But our research shows that action is needed at home as well as ‘upstream’.
January 28, 2013
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Jenny Pennington

Jenny is a Researcher at IPPR the UK’s largest progressive think tank. Jenny specialises on issues of migration, social exclusion, housing and communities. She currently works on the institute’s Beyond Irregularity project, a three year research and advocacy project into irregular migration in partnership with Eaves (UK), the University of Sussex (UK), CCME (Morocco), dRPC (Nigeria) and PICUM (Belgium). She tweets as @jennyippr

Bree grew up in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria. After fleeing a forced marriage and a trafficking experience she received threats, was badly beaten and her house was burnt down. Looking to escape, her brother found her work as a domestic help in the UK. After flying to London she was met by a woman at the airport.

Once she arrived at the house her passport was taken from her and the doors of the flat locked. She was expected to care for a sick child, work through the day and night and slept on the floor. The wages she was promised never materialised. Desperate to escape she contacted a friend who put her in touch with someone she could stay with. Yet rather than safety, her situation worsened. Once she arrived at the house her passport was taken from her, she was beaten and was forced to have sex with men who came to the house. Bree escaped after confiding in one of the men and he helped her to leave. However even at this point she faced further exploitation. After securing her a job in social care he forced her to sign over her wages to him. When he caught her keeping some of her wages, she was thrown out onto the street.

Bree was one of the individuals who participated in a new IPPR research study launched this week into trafficking from Nigeria to the UK. The research was carried out in partnership with Eaves, the organisation behind the Poppy Project and the Nigerian NGO the Development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC). It draws on interviews with forty people who were trafficked between Nigeria and the UK, new polling and interviews with experts and stakeholders in both countries.

Trafficking is the movement of a person, against their will (for example through the use of force or deception) for the purposes of exploiting them. The experiences of our interviewees were diverse but involved abuse, rape and long hours of work with no or low pay. Interviewees were trafficked and exploited in the sex industry and in private households as domestic workers. Most were women and girls. Some came as adults, others as children.

It is an issue that the UK has yet to get to grips with. In 2011 alone, over two thousand potential victims of trafficking were identified in the UK. To its credit the government has made strong pledges to turn this around. Its latest strategy launched in 2011 emphasises the importance of prevention – and aims to ‘address trafficking at source’ through working ‘upstream’ to ‘prevent threats reaching UK shores’.Our research sets out to throw light on what this new response might look like.

Preventing trafficking involves addressing a complex set of interconnected issues. Trying to address it through ‘upstream’ work in another country and with international partners is even more difficult. Perhaps this is one reason why the UK’s most developed ‘upstream’ response to date is targeting trafficking at the border through tightening security and addressing irregular migration.

However our research found that while the journey between Nigeria and the UK does present an opportunity to interrupt trafficking, work at the border should be a small part of a much wider response. The research found that vulnerability to trafficking and to abuse and exploitation start well before people came close to a border. Our research identified specific underlying factors that made some women and girls particularly vulnerable to trafficking for example high instances of trafficking within Nigeria (28% of respondents). By focusing on stopping migration rather than addressing these underlying factors, these individuals remain vulnerable to abuse and highly vulnerable to being trafficked elsewhere. While the ‘threat of trafficking’ has not ‘reached the UK’s shores’ it has not gone away.

At the other end of the trafficking journey, the current approach does little to respond to the environment in the UK that allows trafficking, or to reduce the demand for exploitative labour. Even if victims of trafficking victims are stopped at the border, this demand may be met by other vulnerable migrants or others already in the UK. The importance of this was seen in our interviews. Even once interviewees did manage to escape from their initial situation, many faced long periods of further exploitation. Some were caught by their trafficker, others were ‘rescued’ to then be re-trafficked or exploited in another situation. As Bree’s story shows, people do not have to cross borders to be trafficked and exploited.

The UK is right to shift to a prevention focus. However while the UK works to tackle the challenges of working in partnership with countries of origin and transit, there is plenty of work that is needed within the UK.

This includes the enforcement of laws around child protection, sex work and vulnerable employment. More work also needs to be done with migrant communities in the UK to communicate messages about the law in the UK, what constitutes trafficking, what support is available and the consequences for traffickers for being caught. The UK also needs to make sure that immigration rules aren’t preventing victims of trafficking and exploitation from seeking help - re-establishing the domestic workers visa that allowed migrants to change employer would be a good place to start.

A preventative approach requires action in the UK as well as in countries of origin. As the UK continues to develop its policy in this area, we need to take the opportunities available to address the drivers of trafficking and exploitation, whether outside of or within the UK.

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