10 November 2021

Slavery victims need more support if we are to catch the gang masters

By Jackie Doyle-Price

Just over a year ago I awoke to the news that 39 people had been found dead in the back of a lorry in West Thurrock in my constituency.

It took a while for the full horror of the incident to sink in. Thirty-nine people got into the back of that lorry with the hope for a better life. A hope that had been ruthlessly exploited by criminal gangs for whom they were just a commodity to be smuggled – a cargo which is seen as lower risk than drugs and alcohol.

None of us can blame anyone for wanting to come to this country, and I fully understand the anger at the volume of people entering illegally – but our anger ought to be directed more at the ruthless criminal networks who encourage and exploit them.

In introducing the Nationality and Borders Bill the Home Secretary has made clear her determination to break the business model of people smuggling networks and protect the lives of those they endanger. Essex Police have proved that it can be done. So far seven men have been jailed in connection with the Thurrock tragedy. Where there is a will, justice can be served.

But it isn’t just the exorbitant sums charged by the organised crime groups for arranging passage. It is estimated there are 100,000 victims trafficked into modern slavery.

The Modern Slavery Act introduced life sentences for the traffickers, but legislation is nothing without meaningful enforcement. To truly break the business model of these organised crime groups we need more successful prosecutions. Five years after the Modern Slavery Act the prosecution rate for modern slavery is far too low – just a couple of hundred prosecutions related to slavery last year compared with 6,000-8,000 estimated modern slavery offenders according to the National Crime Agency. And even those who do get convicted receive pitiful sentences for the crime of exploiting their fellow human beings. So much for deterrence.

To be frank, we will not bring the human traffickers to justice while we continue to treat victims as criminals.

Whatever their immigration status, these people are vulnerable victims of crime. They are often engaged in illegal activities, such as prostitution and cannabis farming. They can be traumatised and fearful of the authorities. But they are still victims who often experience physical and emotional violence, threats and coercive behaviour.

New research from the Centre for Social Justice and Justice & Care reveals the importance of victims’ testimony to identifying and apprehending the criminals behind slavery. But the Nationality and Borders Bill makes it harder for slavery victims to come forward to report the crime and to access our support system. If we make it harder to identify victims and enable them to report their intelligence to the police how can we hope to identify and dismantle the organised criminal gangs?

Unless we take positive steps to encourage victims to come forwards these criminals will simply continue to exploit vulnerable people. They already use the threat of deportation to coerce and control their victims – this Bill enhances that threat. There is evidence that, with support, victims will engage; 89% of victims receiving tailored support from Justice and Care’s own ‘Victim Navigator’ programme have chosen to engage with police investigations compared to the national average of 33%.

The BBC documentary ‘Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers’ illustrates the importance of victim testimony. The success of the Essex Police investigation depended hugely on the extraordinary role of Witness X, who had been smuggled in by the same network just a week before. That evidence was crucial in bringing down the gang. Without more of this kind of evidence we will not succeed in breaking these complex organised transnational criminal networks.

If the Government is really serious about breaking down this evil trade and going after those responsible, it needs to focus on enabling victims to come forward by providing them with ongoing support so they can share their intelligence with the police. Without a greater focus on victims the traffickers will simply carry on exploiting these vulnerable people.

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Jackie Doyle-Price is MP for Thurrock.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.