Concerns about an increase in human trafficking around the Olympics have been in the news over recent months.
While the impact of large scale sporting events, such as the Olympics, on trafficking is uncertain, recent convictions and research by government agencies demonstrate that trafficking, or the acquisition and transportation of people for the purposes of exploiting them, is a real issue for the UK.
There is significant political commitment to addressing trafficking - it even appears as a priority in the coalition agreement.
However, two years into the coalition, a briefing paper published today by IPPR finds that rather than the Olympics being the biggest threat to the UK’s attempts to prevent trafficking, it is the UK’s poor policy response.
Encouragingly, the government’s latest strategy to address human trafficking acknowledges the importance of addressing the fundamental causes of trafficking: the supply of exploitable people and, most importantly, the demand for exploitative work including prostitution, forced labour and domestic servitude in the UK.
However, despite the creation of some small scale projects to address demand for trafficking by the government and voluntary agencies, the development of effective and scaleable policy in this area is lacking.
For the most part, responses to address demand have been limited, ineffective and even had negative consequences for trafficked people.
Most worryingly, some effective policies have recently been reversed.
For example, in March the government announced that they are scrapping a visa that enabled domestic workers to leave exploitative employers and move on to fair and sustainable work.
This has left domestic workers in a hidden and unregulated work sector without the ability to flee exploitation and find alternative employers.
Rather than tackling these causal factors, the most developed areas of trafficking policy all emphasise disrupting the ‘symptoms’ of trafficking, such as irregular migration, rather then the causes.
A significant part of the UK’s strategy focuses on strengthening the borders against irregular migration, whether by training border guards or sharing intelligence. Even work that is labelled as ‘preventing trafficking’ is focused on stopping migrants getting in - or, in the words of the strategy, ‘threats from reaching UK shores’.
While the government clearly has a strong public mandate to take all effective steps to stop irregular migration, doing so should not be conflated with providing a comprehensive response to trafficking.
Data on the nationalities of people identified as being trafficked demonstrate that many people who are trafficked into the UK arrive innocuously on their own EU passports. Others may be entirely unaware of the exploitation they face in the UK and be difficult to identify among thousands of other travellers.
In addition, addressing trafficking this way is short term at best, temporarily pushing away a person vulnerable to exploitation who is likely to be exploited elsewhere if not here.
Critically, this focus on border control and immigration has also prevented the UK from engaging with the reality of trafficking to and within the UK.
Internal trafficking of UK nationals within the UK is estimated to be on the increase yet has too often been ignored by policy.
Recent prosecutions, such as the men in Rochdale found guilty of trafficking girls in and around the North West of England, contradict the government’s strategy, a line in which reads: ‘Victims of trafficking must then cross the UK border.'
It is quite wrong to view trafficking and forced labour as something that can be quarantined at Dover.
Work at the border should be a component of the UK’s response to trafficking, but not its main component. Rather trafficking policy needs to be revised so that it addresses the fundamental causes of the problem.
For this trafficking policy needs oversight, coordination and cross-departmental working. This is challenging, but international examples can be instructive.
The Netherlands have created an independent agency to oversee policy development as well as collect information about the scale and reality of trafficking to and within the Netherlands. The agency collects data, analyses trafficking trends, monitors trafficking policy and makes recommendations to the government.
As well as promoting the flow of information on trafficking among institutions and stakeholders, the independence of the agency ensures that a clear picture of trafficking can be built for policy to respond to, all components of trafficking policy are assessed and evaluated and weaknesses raised by an independent voice.
If the UK wishes to meet its commitment to addressing trafficking it needs to ensure policy gets to grips with the fundamental causes.
The UK needs to learn from international examples to review the efficacy of its policy and ensure that the threat of the Olympics is not dwarfed by its own misdirected response.
Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR