OPINION: Britain needs to save the Modern Slavery Helpline – here's why

by Justine Currell | Unseen
Friday, 4 October 2019 09:55 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Pedestrians walk over Westminster Bridge with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament seen behind, at dusk in central London, December 15, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Closure of the Helpline will mean losing individual lives, and the insight into the big picture that helps us understand how and where trafficking happens in this country

Justine Currell is the director of Unseen.

The number of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in Britain has doubled in four years from more than 3,000 in 2015 to just under 7,000 in 2018. Nearly a quarter of all victims, and nearly half of child victims, were UK citizens. This is a national crisis.

With the National Crime Agency estimating there are tens of thousands of victims still out there, it is imperative that we tackle the issue of modern slavery in this country quickly and effectively.

The Modern Slavery Helpline has been called a ‘lynchpin in tackling modern slavery in Britain by the former Commander of the Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit, Andy Munday.

Yet the Helpline is at risk of closure due to lack of funding. So just what does the fight against slavery lose if the Helpline closes?

For a start, we would lose people like Martin*.

The first time Martin called the helpline he was too terrified to admit that he was the one being abused.  He pretended he was talking about a friend, called Paul.

He told us that Paul had been offered work by an old friend. The friend began giving Paul so much work that he couldn’t keep up, accused him of losing money and took his property as compensation. Paul was now living in an old factory with no sanitary facilities, beaten, not paid, and not regularly fed.

Yet he was too scared to leave as the exploiter made threats against his family and claimed to have links to the police.

The helpline operator told Martin the Helpline and the police could help him escape, and that there were services that could support him.

When Martin called back, he’d found the courage to tell us that he was the one in trouble, and that he now wanted our help.  Within 24 hours he was safe and had access to the support he was entitled to.

But imagine that when Martin called back, all he got was an unavailable number.

We are in contact with countless victims of modern slavery all over the UK. People who are trapped in situations of terrifying abuse, but need confidential, expert advice.

If the Helpline closes, we lose all those people.

The Helpline is free, open 24/7 every day of the year, and accessible in over 200 languages. 

It’s confidential and independent, so people who have been told to fear the police or authorities can trust us. That is vital for someone who has been manipulated and deceived into thinking they are alone.

And it’s not just victims who call. Whether it’s a police officer who’s encountered someone they think may be a victim of modern slavery, or a member of the public who’s had their car washed and sensed something was wrong, the Helpline is there as the one-stop shop for expert advice and reporting.

Beyond the level of assisting on individual cases, the Helpline publishes redacted call data to illuminate the nature and scale of modern slavery in the UK. 

We share anonymised data with the government, police forces and businesses, providing an evidence base that will allow to develop strategies which are informed, targeted, and - perhaps most importantly - can be evaluated. 

Shaun Sawyer, National Police Chiefs Lead for Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, has said that ‘the information obtained through the helpline is truly shaping operational decisions and strategic thinking with forces and wider law enforcement.’

So, this is what we lose. Individual lives, and the insight into the big picture that helps us understand how and where trafficking happens in this country. Both are crucial to preventing abuse and exploitation happening in the first place.

That is why we need to keep the lines open. 

*Name and some details have been changed to protect identity.