Brexit could hamper Britain's fight against trafficking: anti-slavery body

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s exit from the European Union could hamper the fight against human trafficking at a time when the number of people being trapped in slavery is increasing, fueled by social media, Britain’s anti-slavery body said on Tuesday.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) said it had made over 100 arrests and rescued more than 1,300 exploited workers since it was granted “police-style powers” last May to tackle trafficking and slavery.

It said forced labor accounted for about 30 percent of all exploitation in Britain and most victims were male EU nationals from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

The GLAA said it was unclear how Brexit would affect the drive to stop human trafficking but it was the key factor likely to impact the intelligence picture in coming years.

“Dependent upon worker restrictions, there may be a drop in intelligence flows as EU nationals will seek to remain under the radar of any law enforcement/immigration activity,” the GLAA said in a report.

Britain passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 to crack down on traffickers, force businesses to check their supply chains for forced labor, and protect people at risk of being enslaved.

In Britain, at least 13,000 people are estimated to be victims of modern-day slavery, used in forced labor, sex exploitation or domestic servitude, but police say the true figure is likely much higher.

In March, the National Crime Agency - dubbed Britain’s FBI - said it received 5,145 reports of suspected slavery victims in 2017, up more than a third from 3,804 in 2016.

The GLAA said people addicted to drugs and alcohol were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, as well as the poor homeless, or uneducated, with abuse rife in nail bars, building sites, factories, farms and hand car washes.

The GLAA echoed warnings by Europe’s police agency Europol that the encrypted and anonymous nature of modern technology, from messaging service WhatsApp to cryptocurrencies, has made it harder for law enforcement to find traffickers.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is being used for job advertising, with introductions being made between victim and exploiter using this method,” the GLAA said in its report.

“This enables potential exploiters to recruit from a wider victim base from any location at any time, with a certain level of protection over the exploiter’s identity.”

Europol last month said although criminal gangs and traffickers do leave behind virtual traces for law enforcement to follow, limited digital expertise meant that police are struggling to tackle the $150-billion-a-year trade.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp - the messaging service used by more than 1 billion people - did not respond requests for comment but has previously said its encryption allows people to share personal information safely and securely.

Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the GLAA, said slavery and exploitation continued to thrive in every UK town and city.

“Our dedicated workforce will continue to build on what we’ve achieved ... but there is much more to do,” he said.