UK border force failing to identify victims of modern slavery - watchdogs

by Matthew Ponsford | @mjponsford | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 February 2017 15:43 GMT

UK Border control is seen in Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London in this 2014 archive photo. REUTERS/Neil Hall

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"There is a strong chance we are missing thousands of victims of modern slavery at our borders"

By Matthew Ponsford

LONDON, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's border force is missing thousands of modern slavery victims and has prosecuted only two human traffickers since 2014, two official watchdogs said in report on Thursday.

In 2015, more than 3,200 potential victims were referred to the authorities through a system set up the government to identify and support victims of trafficking. Some 94 percent of those came from abroad.

But less than one percent of these potential victims were identified by border officials, the joint report by the chief inspector of borders and the anti-slavery commissioner said.

"There is a strong chance we are missing thousands of victims of modern slavery at our borders," Independent Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said.

"I am pleased that nearly all recommendations in this report have been accepted, but I am concerned that we are missing the mark in safeguarding victims," he said.

A Home Office (interior ministry) spokesperson said the government is already taking action to address key issues raised.

The border force has a key role to play in identifying and protecting victims and will continue to improve its response, he said.

In 2014, the government published its modern slavery strategy which then-Home Secretary Theresa May said would "ensure tough penalties are in place, alongside important protections and support for victims."

The strategy gave the border force a lead responsibility but since then poorly organised record keeping and poor staff training had prevented it from working effectively, the report said.

Considerable efforts had been made to train staff in tackling trafficking but some officers told the inspectors they had completed the mandatory training as a box-checking exercise and saw it as their priority to move queues at the borders fast.

The report acknowledged frontline officers face a difficult task but said the force must make urgent changes to meet its responsibility to lead anti-slavery efforts at the border.

Recommendations made included retraining officers to make them better equipped to collect evidence of trafficking and standardising the way data is collected.

Hyland told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he was shocked by how few victims and offenders had been identified.

He said analysing systematic data would allow the border force to pursue offenders in the same way as financial criminals.

"We need to look at what checks are being done on vehicles, on names, on people who continuously book one-way flights on budget airlines."

"We shouldn't wait for a victim to come forward. We need to get far more proactive in how we pursue these criminals," he said.

(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Astrid Zweynert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)