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Brexit seen as a boon for human traffickers if UK-EU cooperation ends

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 December 2020 13:24 GMT

British and EU flags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

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Britain’s anti-slavery efforts at risk unless it maintains cooperation with police across the European Union, activists warn

LONDON, Dec 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brexit will be a boon for human traffickers unless Britain acts swiftly to improve its border controls and maintain cooperation with European law enforcement bodies, activists said on Friday.

Britain's transition period out of the European Union ends on Dec. 31, and it is unclear how much access it will retain to the bloc's data from security tools used in everything from combating crime to business information.

A Human Trafficking Foundation (HTF) report said Britain risked being excluded from intelligence-sharing operations such as Europol, which could hinder efforts to stop modern slavery as many victims arrive from nations including Albania and Bulgaria.

A "no-deal" could mean Britain is cut off from EU security data, from the Schengen Information System - the bloc's border database - to the European police Europol. If there is a deal, Britain's access would be reduced, but by how much is unclear.

Britain must also address issues with entry and exit checks after Brexit, the authors said, describing the proposed visa-free entry for EU nationals as an "open door for traffickers".

"Ministers must wake up to this threat and find ways of maintaining links with EU law enforcement agencies and plugging gaps in our border controls, which are wide open to exploitation by trafficking gangs," said HTF Chairman Anthony Steen.

A record 10,627 suspected slaves were identified in 2019 - up by 52% in a year - while the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the crime further underground with victims less likely to be found and frontline services focused elsewhere, campaigners have said.

Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain's landmark 2015 law has faced widespread criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive companies to tackle forced labour, or help enough victims.

Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins said Britain would continue to work with EU law enforcement partners to target trafficking routes across Europe and protect people at risk.

"Our work at the border to protect the vulnerable will continue to be a priority for the Home Office (interior ministry) after the transition period ends," she said.

The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) has said it is prepared for a potential loss of EU tools and powers, and has set up a network of officers with expertise in global policing to use other mechanisms in the event of a "no-deal".

The HTF report urged the government to provide safe and legal migration routes into Britain to curb modern slavery, and improve its border-control measures, identification checks and data gathering on traffickers and victims.

"If we wish to address the scourge of modern slavery, we must take this chance to change this situation," said Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a HTF trustee and member of Britain's upper house of parliament.

"Cooperating with European partners is the only course of action to continue the fight, but we must step up, recognise our past failures and put right weaknesses in our border controls."

Related stories:

UK urged to stop human traffickers exploiting Brexit uncertainty

Migrant workers face abuse, slavery threat in post-Brexit Britain

Brexit may help child traffickers cross UK borders – charities

(Writing by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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