Christian Guy is Chief Executive of the anti-slavery organisation Justice and Care. He was formerly a Special Adviser to David Cameron in 10 Downing Street, and a Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
What began by tearing down former slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol has morphed into a crusade to rid Britain of countless other references to the past. In the BBC’s absurd removal of a Fawlty Towers episode and the covering up of Winston Churchill’s own statue, we risk missing the point and losing the plot.
Colston’s Royal African Company transported more than 80,000 slaves, burned with the letters ‘RAC’ as they sailed, from West Africa to the Americas on hellish voyages. For one in five people, these were floating tombs. Disease and murder were commonplace, as was jumping overboard in desperation. Survivors faced new barbarity. 12.5 million people were transported across the Atlantic in total, and nearly two million died en route.
Yet the danger today is we fail to recognise something else vital if we are to truly honour those who suffered: slavery is not just a scar on Britain’s past, it is an open wound in our present. This living, breathing nightmare is what now needs tearing down.
As many as 40 million people worldwide are kept as slaves today. We identify more in our own country every year: Home Office figures reveal 10,627 people were tagged as potential victims of slavery and human trafficking in the last 12 months alone. That’s a 1,886 per cent increase on the 535 people found in 2009, when we started recording it in this way. We are barely scratching the surface: UK officials privately admit the scale is much higher but we fail to find so many.
These are people trafficked across continents and within postcodes. Some bought and sold under cover of darkness; others are abused in broad daylight. It is big business for the organised crime groups running it: the trade in human beings is worth $150 billion a year, making some of the worst criminals imaginable wealthier than you can believe.
Girls purchased for a few thousand pounds, and delivered into or across the UK in days – think Amazon Prime but the products are people. Call the right number in your neighbourhood, and you’ll be face-to-face with a trafficked girl quicker than your Domino’s pizza lands on the doorstep. Slavery is a prolific business model to destroy, not a moral crisis to wish away.
Don’t assume it is an immigration problem our post-Brexit visa system will clear up: British nationals represent one fifth of victims being identified, with more than 80 per cent children. Victims can be women and children raped in apartment block massage parlours. They are the street homeless, taken and tricked from their sleeping bags only to disappear into hard labour.
We find young men sucked into debt bondage, travel and criminal activity they cannot escape from. People are moved in lorries, planes, ferries and cars heading for our restaurants, farms, factories, nail bars, car washes, flats and cleaning firms. And whilst the chains and branding irons may be less common today, people found by the police and NGOs like mine can have barcodes tattooed on their necks and torture scars all over their bodies.
Covid-19 has done little to hinder those running this human trade. In recent weeks Justice and Care has been working alongside police to support people rescued from cellars, brothels, traveller sites and illegal factories. We’ve seen gunshot wounds and babies born as a result of rape. With UK Border Force in Dover, we found a girl on her 19th birthday heading for a lifetime of sexual slavery. Other people are being abused on Zoom calls rather than in double beds. How victims are exploited may have changed temporarily, but that they are exploited has not.
Crucial progress has been won in recent years though, thanks in large part to successive Conservative Governments and superb police officers. Most notably, when Theresa May was Home Secretary and then Prime Minister, slavery and counter-trafficking policies were prioritised in Westminster.
Britain’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act was groundbreaking: in came life sentences and new orders, business supply chain statements and a national Commissioner. May’s Task Force gave focus, leadership and investment to fight back against this criminal underworld. However this job is not done.
Many more traffickers must now face justice. Britain finds thousands of slaves a year but convicts only a few hundred slave masters. One of the ways to change that is to take survivor care more seriously: we lose too many victims (and their golden evidence) as soon as they are rescued. Others won’t trust police but will open up to charities.
Justice and Care has a solution – our ‘Navigator Programme’ – that should be rolled out urgently to work with police nationwide. Survivors often want justice and will help to pursue it if they are treated with dignity. For some, we should even consider the US Government’s ‘Trafficking-Visa’ scheme, which gives victims certain temporary rights to stay and work if they are supporting a police investigation. It is time to realise that decent care is not a soft option, it is the way to smash the criminal networks.
Decent support does not necessarily mean foreign national victims remaining in the UK, though. Government-to-Government repatriation schemes are now required, allowing survivors to return home safely, recover and give evidence remotely. It can be done. And we need pressure on European neighbours and the EU in particular – far too little is done to stop this at source.
We also need to deal with the growth of British victims, and fast. This means a considered review and action across the country. From the care system to rough sleeping and ‘county lines’, we need to protect our most vulnerable from the trafficking threat more effectively. We are losing too many. Overseas, DfID’s trafficking spend should be directed even more strategically at the hotspot countries of origin for the UK and global hubs – attacking the corruption, poverty and blocked opportunity that fuel trafficking into the UK in the first place. This is our first line of defence.
The list goes on. A report from Justice and Care and the Centre for Social Justice will set out more soon, five years on from that Modern Slavery Act.
When Colston was profiting from slavery, everyone knew it existed but few people considered it wrong. It is the reverse in 2020: almost everyone would consider it wrong, but too few people know it exists. That has to change. Too many live in modern equivalents of those slave ships and chains. So yes, remove the slave trader statues if it helps heal the hurt of the past. But let us be clear: the best way to honour the memory of those who suffered is to end it in our own time.
Stamping out slavery in the UK and around the world should fire up this Government, and our new MPs, like nothing else. What better cause for Conservatives than advancing freedom, smashing organised crime, seeding new international alliances and improving life chances for the most abused people on earth? Britain can lead the way. Let’s finish what we started.