How the pandemic has changed the fight against human trafficking

by Fr Mark Ehichioya Odion MSP, Bishop Patrick Lynch SSCC

The UN Special Rapporteurs on migration and trafficking in persons issued a statement warning that victims of human trafficking “may be particularly at risk of Covid-19 because their living or working environment may expose them to the virus without the necessary protection”. Following an intelligence report at the peak of the first wave of the coronavirus crisis, a property at Handsworth, Birmingham, was discovered to house some people who were subjected to “unsanitary living conditions”.

Based on investigations and reports by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the living conditions of those found on the property were deplorable – so much so that the victims resorted to looking for food from supermarket bins. On the face of it, the victims had been trafficked and forced into compulsory labour. Evidence from the property at Handsworth suggests that labour exploitation during the coronavirus pandemic is on the increase. Further evidence is the arrest of six persons after ten suspected victims of modern slavery were found living in a farm building in Bedfordshire. The GLAA also found other victims in Lincolnshire. All of the victims were conscripted to work on farms during the lockdown.

These cases show that the pandemic has highlighted the need for better management and monitoring of the way seasonal agricultural workers are recruited and brought to this country. With the UK leaving the EU in January 2021 the time has now come to re-introduce the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Visa and thus prevent persons being brought into the UK under false pretences where they are forced to work in deplorable conditions for little or no money. The flow of seasonal agricultural workers needs to be better regulated if we are to stop it being exploited by criminal gangs.

The increase in the numbers of refugees trying to across the English Channel during the lockdown also suggests an increase in the smuggling of and trafficking in human beings. This is demonstrated by the number of distress calls to organisations that rescue stranded victims of human trafficking. There is every indication that the arrival of migrants and refugees in the United Kingdom may have doubled as a resulted of the criminal activities human traffickers who saw the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to make money. This highlights the need for effective measures to tackle the problem at the source where victims are recruited.

The Palermo Protocol has underscored the complexity of the crime of human trafficking – the recruitment, the movement, and the exploitation of victims. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] in article 3 paragraph (a) of the Palermo Protocol of UN General Assembly, to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, defines THB as: “The act of recruiting, transporting, abducting and harbouring of persons forcefully or paying to acquire the consent of the individual for the purpose of exploitation which includes sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

The criminals involved in human trafficking operate as a network of syndicates. Local syndicates and criminal gangs operate from source countries with accomplices overseas who receive victims on arrival providing those trafficked with documents like passports and visas which then enable them to move their victims through porous borders. These gangs are adept at taking advantage of bad governments, corruption, mass unemployment and cultural beliefs. While the pandemic has reduced the demand for workers in some sectors (e.g. car washes) it has reinforced the importance of a renewed commitment by all governments (including the UK Government) to a more rigorous implementation of the Palermo Protocol especially the need to protect women and children.

The Holy Father in his address to the participants at the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees insisted that the protection for migrants begins in the country of origin. It consists in offering reliable and verified information before departure, and in providing safety from illegal recruitment practices. This means that the countries of origin should provide necessary information to facilitate safe migration. On the other hand, those rescued from human trafficking should be protected against been re-trafficked, and all returnees are to accorded respect and welcome in their countries of origin.

Another key priority for the Santa Marta Group at this time is the continued financial support for local communities in countries where human trafficking is endemic as they carry out their mission of prevention, protection, and promotion of victims. The Grow Edo project in Edo State, Nigeria, is an excellent example of how Catholic Dioceses and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the State are addressing the issue of trafficking during the pandemic. Aware of how traffickers could use the lockdown to recruit victims, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have continued raising awareness of the danger of trafficking from the community and continue providing struggling families and vulnerable young people and with much needed sustenance and opportunities to process and sell their produce. Here in the UK, the Catholic Church has been engaging in raising awareness in the area of Agriculture and domestic servitude.

In conclusion, as the pandemic continues, it is important that the Government of the UK now looks at the re-introduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ visa and provides the resources to fully implement the Palermo Protocol so that agricultural workers and especially women and children who are vulnerable to human slavery can be fully protected.

Fr Mark Ehichioya Odion MSP and Bishop Patrick Lynch SSCC are members of the UK Santa Marta Group.