Human trafficking: A faceless crime, millions of faces

Our anti-modern slavery team have recently been studying the sorts of mechanisms legislatures and governments can put in place to tackle human trafficking at the national and regional levels. GPG Associate Gavin Callaghan reflects on challenges to this task and lessons learnt from our collaborations and work. 

Human trafficking is a faceless crime with millions of faces. 

By this I mean that millions of people are still unable to identify victims of trafficking adequately and effectively and, cruelly, too many victims of trafficking do not themselves recognise the abhorrent nature of their plight. The result is a system that misses victims and allows criminality to continue. 

That is what I have learnt from my experience collaborating with GPG’s anti-modern slavery team, as we have looked to identify best practice and areas of learning to help combat this heinous crime. 

In our work to support Sudan’s National Committee for Combatting Trafficking (NCCT), we have looked to build a comparative study of anti-trafficking measures, drawing from international examples. Doing so, we found that whilst some major factors inevitably contribute to the exacerbation of human trafficking – for instance, an economic downturn, or labour laws that hinder refugee workers’ access to good paying, lawful jobs – we learned that there are steps Governments can practically take to address the issues in the system. 

In fact, the lessons that can be drawn can be placed into six categories. 

1. Political Will 

Ensuring that commitment derives from the top levels of Government will be central to the success of the NCCT. It will also be crucial to secure the presence of adequate political will to prioritise legislative time, enable post-legislative scrutiny, and – crucially – provide financial resources to tackling this issue. 

Yet all legislation is only ever as good as its enforcement. What we have learned in respect of enforcing anti-trafficking legislation is that this process can manifest itself seasonally rather than systematically. Crucial to combating trafficking is to ensure a consistent and systematic approach to identifying victims, protecting victims, prosecuting perpetrators, and establishing effective partnerships to counter criminality. This means making sure that training and capacity-building are rolled out at speed to those who are in regular contact with vulnerable people. It also means ensuring cases are logged and tracked. 

2. Evidence-based information and analysis 

That brings us to the second lesson. To ensure that the system works when enforcing anti-trafficking legislation, it is critical that policy, procedures, and practices are underpinned by a solid evidence-base that is continually analysed for new and emerging trends. Too often, data and statistics can lack the credibility and referenceability the need to shape decisions. This can sometimes be caused by an over-centralised approach to the issue, or because of a sporadic application of referral mechanisms in place, where service users do not properly refer victims and suspected victim of trafficking. 

Such mechanisms need to be tried and tested elements of the anti-trafficking system. Failing to ensure this leads to few perpetrators of human trafficking to be brought to face prosecution and, devastatingly, too few victims of trafficking to receive the help and support they need. Furthermore, without solid evidence, it is impossible to track and trace victims and organise resources effectively to combat areas of weakness where perpetrators of trafficking evade detection by law enforcement. 

3. Regional approaches 

A great deal of the nature of human trafficking involves moving the victims against their will across borders and into other nations and territories – often without them ever even realising. 

This means that a regional approach to border control, intelligence sharing, and consistent protection and prosecution are crucial to combatting trafficking. Ensuring that neighbouring countries’ anti-modern slavery laws are aligned with the national legislation demonstrates effective regional partnership and, in turn, will deter criminality in the wider region and protect more potential victims. 

Significantly this will also help in ensuring that within countries throughout the region, the treatment and – more importantly – the access to treatment for both nationals and foreign nationals is aligned and applied evenly. 

4. Awareness raising 

A key recommendation for us to the NCCT has revolved around awareness-raising and effective resident-engagement. This takes a variety of forms. Ensuring that frontline professionals working with vulnerable people recognise the signs of trafficking and understand how to refer victims for protection is critical. This isn’t to dismiss the scale of this challenge; it is tough. Not all victims of trafficking display obvious signs and not all victims themselves understand that they have been trafficked. 

In some cases, the law needs to change to take into account the possibility of trafficking taking place within the family home. Whilst this change may be a longer-term play, there are practical things governments can do to ensure effective messaging, starting with understanding that a one-size-fits-all communication campaign is not always likely to succeed. 

5. Devolution 

Therefore, devolving responsibility for awareness raising within regional authorities and local institutions of governance would be preferable and have a more meaningful impact in raising awareness of how to identify victims of human trafficking. 

This is particularly the case in institutions that administrate border areas. Rather than concentrating messaging and resources into central cities, practitioners should be mindful that victims are often located further away from help, in more rural areas. By charging regional and local authorities with spreading a more localised message, it is expected and hoped that a greater impact will be had in providing help and support for victims as well as a deterrent for the perpetrators. 

6. Technology 

Finally, a key component of effectively enforcing anti-trafficking legislation is the need for the system in use to be digitalised and for technology to be deployed effectively within and across borders. 

As we are seeing with the Russian war on Ukraine, it has become necessary for countries to enforce bio-metric testing of refugees as they cross borders, as this is critical to enable their tracking and to help people as conflict forces them to move to different countries. Similar technologies could be applied to support victims identified and directed to the referral mechanism. Those could be used to help authorities control borders and monitor people coming in and out of the country. 

Additionally, by using technology and digitalising access to support services, refugees and victims of trafficking will be able to access support faster and cheaper than they would if they are required to travel, in-person, to attend registration and law enforcement offices. 

Human trafficking is complex – no one can deny this – and the political choices are hard. However, for politicians, to govern is to choose. If the Government in Sudan chooses to work to ensure a systematic approach to tackling trafficking is implemented – one that takes into account some of the key lessons learnt from our work – then there is hope that we will see the faces of more victims so they can be properly supported, more vulnerable people will be protected, more perpetrators will be prosecuted, and more powerful regional partnerships will be fostered.