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OPINION: Black Lives Matter and the UK's anti-trafficking sector

by Debbie Ariyo | UK BME Anti-Slavery Network
Wednesday, 17 June 2020 09:57 GMT

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

Amid the global anti-racism protests, representation in the UK anti-trafficking sector is still severely skewed and must transform bottom-up

Debbie Ariyo is the Founder and CEO of AFRUCA – Safeguarding Children and Chair of the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network – a network of BME grass-root organisations working in anti-trafficking

The death of George Floyd in the United States and the resulting global protests against racism has led to different sectors examining how their own operations promote racist behaviour affecting their ethnic minority clients, users and staff.

Many are now executing definitive action plans to change the status quo.

The UK’s anti-trafficking sector also has its own racism problem, which occurs in many ways. This “Black Lives Matter” pivotal moment provides a real opportunity for us to reflect on the various structural, systemic and cultural failings that help to promote or nurture racial inequality, lack of diversity and inclusion to the detriment of those we work with.

There are many areas of our work where a lack of diversity and inclusion is apparent. Many survivors of human trafficking are from abroad (for example, victims of domestic slavery, forced labour and sexual slavery) or from UK black and ethnic minority communities (such as victims of county lines trafficking with children used to transport drugs).

It is surprising that many anti-trafficking charities do not have staff members from these different communities who can provide culturally appropriate support services that best meet the needs of survivors.

With the plethora of anti-trafficking organisations spread out across the country, there are only five or six with a CEO from a black or ethnic minority background. Even worse, most Trustees do not reflect the demography of their charities’ service users.

Our approach to community based anti-trafficking prevention is derisory. There is little effort to engage communities affected by the issues we address. Where efforts are made, these are very tokenistic – employing top-down approaches.

I am aware of at least two instances where external consultants totally oblivious of the dynamics at play were engaged by government agencies to conduct “community engagement” in the Nigerian community with obvious little or no impact – a waste of public funds that could have been put to better use.

UK anti-trafficking policy-making structures and processes are very exclusive and completely marginalise BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) charities working to address these issues in affected communities. There is a pecking order of engagement in which mainstream white led organisations are routinely consulted in anti-trafficking policy development.

Despite the array of knowledge and expertise existing among many BME led groups, there are no formal structures to engage them as stakeholders in anti-trafficking policy. Simply put, the voices of BME communities affected by different trafficking issues are very silent when policies are developed. This lack of engagement sometimes results in policies that do not really protect the interests of survivors.

Since many survivors of human trafficking are from outside the UK, the plethora of UK government’s asylum seeking policies has had very negative consequences on them. Some legal firms have taken the government to court countless times to have some of these harsh policies overturned.

There have also been occasions when law enforcement agencies have failed to protect survivors of trafficking due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of cultural practices that foster trafficking and exploitation. Of course, this results in a double whammy for the survivors.

Academia cannot be absolved of blame here either. Little interest has been shown in collaborative work with smaller charities working in affected communities. The result is a dearth of academic research to interrogate the many cultural factors that inform the attitudes and perceptions towards child trafficking, exploitation and slavery in BME communities.

The way forward is really a much better recognition of the negative impact these failings have created with strong efforts made to change the status quo. Charities should be bold in developing and implementing action plans to increase the number of staff and trustees in their organisations reflective of the ethnic make-up of their service users, and seek out individuals from ethnic communities with the requisite expertise and skills to recruit in senior management positions.

Statutory agencies working in anti-trafficking are obliged to enact policies that work. To do so, all relevant stakeholders should be engaged to contribute to the policy-making process. Working or Advisory Panels should be reflective of the demography impacted by policy. This includes survivors and community members or leader, who can provide specialist input.

Furthermore, statutory agencies should stop the terrible practice of recruiting paid external consultants to engage communities in anti-trafficking prevention work. Instead, grassroots organisations with the appropriate skills should be engaged to conduct the work.

Law enforcement agencies need to intensify training for their staff to increase their cultural intelligence, so they are better able to identify and offer protection for survivors. This should be a prerequisite for everyone in any organisation working with clients from a diverse background.

Only then can we change the current status quo and make the UK anti-trafficking sector more inclusive in the best interest of our users.