Slaves on our Streets: Why London is a global hub for modern slavery

‘The criminals have been getting away with it for far too long. Compared to smuggling guns or drugs, trafficking of people has been seen as low-risk’

Ed Cumming
Thursday 14 September 2017 17:17 BST
The problem of modern slavery is by no means confined to developing nations
The problem of modern slavery is by no means confined to developing nations (Reuters)

Down a muddy dirt track in the outskirts of Lagos, sitting in a bare concrete safe house behind an eight-foot fence, the women told me their stories. How they had left their homes on the promise of a better life in Europe, only to find themselves beaten, abused, raped, forced to work as prostitutes. How the promises of their traffickers turned out to be lies.

Recognised as victims of trafficking and returned to safety in Nigeria, these were the lucky ones – although some of them struggled to believe it. But in bleak rooms all over the UK, their fellow victims are still being exploited and abused, not knowing if they will ever escape.

Anywhere people dream of the wages of a big developed city, human traffickers lie in wait to take advantage of them. Just as it is an international centre of other kinds of business, the UK has become a global hub for modern slavery, with London at its heart.

“London is a global city, truly multicultural, and while that’s one of the best things about the capital, we know that criminals have also exploited that,” said Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, to The Independent. “London has a huge population with busy airports and a big economy. There is immense demand for illicit services.

“The criminals have been getting away with it for far too long. Compared to smuggling guns or drugs, trafficking of people has been seen as low-risk. We need to develop an understanding of the whole threat picture. Until recently we’ve been operating on unfounded intelligence, or myths. If we don’t get these basics right, our response will be wrong.”

The nearly 4,000 potential victims identified by the National Referral Mechanism in 2016 originate from a staggering 108 countries. As our map shows, the most common foreign nationalities are Albania, Vietnam and Nigeria, followed by China and Romania. Given that the IASC estimates the true figure of victims to be much higher – at up to 13,000 – it’s likely that there are even more countries involved.

Extrapolating from the figures, there are almost certainly thousands of Albanians, Vietnamese and Nigerians working as modern slaves in the UK.

Hyland was speaking around the launch of a report into the trafficking routes from Vietnam. One of his goals as Commissioner is to show the complex relationships between Britain and origin countries, each of which has distinct cultural factors that can seem alien to British observers. Nigerian women might fear juju curse. Vietnamese boys – young males make up the largest cohort of Vietnamese modern slaves in Britain – live in fear of debt.

A typical case might involve a friend or neighbour offering someone in north of the country work in London. As identified in the Commissioner’s report, the price for transport could be anything from £10,000-£33,000. As collateral, the victim’s parents might hand over the ‘red book’: the deeds to their property.

The journey could take months, with various overland routes leading to France, where the victim will wait with hundreds of other Vietnamese for an opportunity to cross the channel. Along the way, beatings and rape are common. Even if they get to the UK, they’ll almost never make the debt back.

Re-trafficking is another key issue. Once a Vietnamese person has been released from one exploitative situation, through escape – especially from less secure’s children’s facilities – or a bust, they can often find themselves walking the streets. It’s easy for them to end up being exploited again. It might be a nail bar, for example, rather than a cannabis farm: often the two businesses are interconnected, with nail bars used to launder drug profits.

​Parosha Chandran, the UK’s leading anti-slavery barrister and a UN expert on trafficking, says part of the problem is the lack of a coordination between police departments. Too often, raids focus on disrupting the place of illegal cannabis cultivation, rather than investigating who is responsible for running the sophisticated, often multimillion pound drug business the trafficking victims are found caught up in. Until a landmark case which she won, children and adults found cultivating cannabis like this were prosecuted as criminals, rather than recognised as being victims of modern slavery.

“It’s time for some critical leadership on investigating modern slavery,” she says. “There are two crimes being committed [in these cases]: human trafficking and the illegal cultivation of drugs. Both have all the hallmarks of organised crime. Police departments must club together their expertise on financial crime, drug crime, modern slavery and witness protection to have an effective response.

“They need to trace money streams, preserve evidence at the scene and offer witness protection to victims to encourage them to victims to come forward, to help with prosecutions. These gangs rule by fear.”

While law enforcement has a part to play, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. People who use cannabis, or visit nail bars or car washes, have a responsibility to spot the signs, and fight the modern slavery that goes on under their noses.

Every day you may come across people who are caught up in modern slavery. Here are the key signs to watch out for:

  • Is someone always watching them?
  • Do they have injuries that appear to be the result of an assault?
  • Will they not look you in the eye or seem frightened?
  • Do they always wear the same few clothes?
  • Are they living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded condition?
  • Do they look starving or neglected?
  • Do they live and work at the same address?
  • Are they being controlled by a ‘boyfriend’?
  • Do they have ID documents?
  • Are their travel arrangements unusual?

Visit Freedom United's action hub for The Independent

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in