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When Tamas came to Britain in 2011 his goal was to make a new life for himself: he would learn English, get over the split with his wife and maybe even earn enough to relocate his children one day. He and his friend Bence had heard they could make as much as £2,000 a month from factory work — far more than back home in Hungary.
Instead the two men, like a rising number of others, fell victim to human trafficking, a global trend with deep consequences for business, government and society as a whole. The man who convinced Tamas and Bence to try their luck in Britain took them on a two-day car ride from Hungary. On arrival they were given housing, but only after they handed over their passports and other documentation. They were forbidden from leaving the building unless it was to be taken to work.
For the next five months the two men were forced into a range of jobs: selling mobile phones, stealing petrol, chasing after chickens on a free-range farm. In return they received a one-off payment of £5 for basic toiletries. They subsisted on a diet of potato stew and baked beans for six days a week. “It was psychological terror,” Tamas told case workers after he escaped. “On many occasions we were threatened physically.” He came close to suicide several times but Bence talked him out of it.
Theirs is not a rare story. The large-scale immigration that has altered Britain since the turn of the century has fuelled opportunities for traffickers and gangmasters hungry to exploit desperate jobseekers from overseas.
The number of people the British Home Office officially classified as potential victims of trafficking shot up by a third last year to 2,340. They came from 96 countries: Vietnamese children locked into Manchester flats to grow cannabis; Albanian women and girls trapped in London brothels; hundreds of men from central Europe and beyond, working throughout Britain and tied to their traffickers by unpayable debts.
Overall, according to Home Office estimates, there are some 10,000 to 13,000 people enslaved in modern-day Britain, victims of a crime that is as hidden as it is pervasive.
“If you went into the street and asked anybody about slavery, they would say: ‘Well, that’s been abolished, hasn’t it, for hundreds of years?’ ” remarks Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary. “Most people do not think this is something that happens, but of course it does.”
But despite government efforts to combat the trade in human beings — including a new law that came into force in October, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 — the victims of forced labour remain deeply vulnerable and at risk of falling back into traffickers’ hands.
Anne Read at the Salvation Army, which cares for people referred into the government’s anti-trafficking programme, recalls an occasion in which the police picked up three vanloads of young men outside London. “They had been living in awful conditions, being moved around by van, but they were almost angry that their work was interrupted,” she says.
“They did not realise that they were not going to get paid. Then two more minibuses came through and the men that got off were dishevelled, their footwear was sodden, they hadn’t washed, they had injuries that hadn’t been treated. You could see these young men looking at them, having been in the same situation as them, and the penny dropped.”
Read adds: “It is different from many other crimes where you have goods and you sell them and they’re gone . . . Once you have got people in your grasp, they can be sold and sold again.”
That is not the only attraction for traffickers: human merchandise is far less problematic to bring into the country than proscribed products such as drugs or weapons.
“Trying to smuggle 5kg of coke into the UK is not easy,” says Detective Chief Inspector Phil Brewer, who heads the Metropolitan Police’s Trafficking and Kidnap Unit. “Sticking someone on a Wizz Air flight is another thing,” he says, referring to the low-cost Hungarian airline.
Victims are often wary of going to the authorities, for fear of deportation, while health workers and police need more training to identify cases of forced labour or other criminal forms of exploitation. It is, Brewer concludes, a “low-risk, high-reward crime”.
Government efforts to combat the trade have become higher-profile with the passage and enactment of the Modern Slavery Act, which May hails as a precedent-setter, the first European legislation aimed at 21st-century trafficking and forced labour.
One novelty of the law is in its global reach. All businesses now operating in the UK with turnover of more than £36m are required to publish a notice on their website stating they have taken steps to eradicate trafficking from their supply chain — a potentially significant step given controversies both past and present over the sourcing of goods such as chocolate, textiles and seafood.
But there is no financial nor criminal penalty for companies that fail to ensure their suppliers avoid using forced labour — an omission the law’s proponents justify by saying it fosters a spirit of co-operation rather than litigation.
Meanwhile, the traffickers themselves have adopted stratagems to avoid detection and prosecution. Some criminal gangs, says the Metropolitan Police’s anti-trafficking unit, coerce their victims into stealing valuables from shops and elsewhere, leaving one of their number to be arrested while the others make off with thousands of pounds’ worth of goods.
The sacrificial lamb is told that a reward is in the offing if he or she keeps their mouth shut, and the lack of testimony hobbles any police investigation. The risk of being re-trafficked rarely goes away. Once they have been officially identified as victims of human trafficking, labourers such as Tamas and Bence are guaranteed just a month and a half in a safe house after which, too often, they return to the streets.
“Everyone wants to look after survivors longer-term but since there is no funding for it beyond the 45-day period given by the government’s support system, it is really tight,” says Phill Clayton, who works with victims at the City Hearts charity. He believes that the best approach is repatriation.
“We do our best to see people return home because then at least we know they’re returning to safety, but there are some people who choose homelessness,” Clayton says. “There is still an idea that the streets are paved with gold in the UK.”
Clayton describes how he recently laid out two options to a trafficking victim: become homeless in the UK or try to rebuild his life in his own country with the help of a support organisation.
“He said: ‘How about this for a third option?’ ” Clayton recalls. “ ‘I stay here for six weeks, then you give me a bus ride back to Bradford and I will go back to the people I was with before; at least they will give me a place to sleep and a little money at the end of the week.’ ”
Things turned out rather better for the two Hungarians who came to the UK in 2011. Bence crawled through an open window to escape from his job and then helped Tamas break free from the traffickers as well.
The Salvation Army gave them emergency accommodation; the men qualified for UK benefits and began taking English classes. Tamas initially struggled but City Hearts bought him a bicycle, which gave him the freedom to look for work. An NHS dentist replaced his decaying teeth.
But the traffickers, who had fraudulently opened bank accounts in Tamas’s and Bence’s names, stealing their identities as well as their labour, were never prosecuted. The two Hungarians were advised that they could be incriminated if they pursued a case against the criminals, and decided not to proceed.
It was just one more of the traffickers’ tricks, another indignity suffered by the barely visible migrants whose increasing numbers have been targeted by an archetypal 21st-century crime.
To find out more about FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit stopthetraffik.org