The lockdown has indisputably protected millions, but what is the fate for those who were vulnerable and hidden away to begin with? Jennie Macaulay speaks to modern slavery prevention group Stop The Traffik about protecting those shut away from view beyond lockdown.
Michael Gove’s dubious assertion in March that Covid-19 “does not discriminate” missed the mark in several obvious ways. Evidence is being gathered about the susceptibility of individuals as a result of race, class and age and one thing is certain: the effects of this insidious illness are far from equitable. Black men and women are almost than twice as likely to die with Covid-19 than white men and women in England and Wales.
While it’s indisputable that the lockdown has protected millions, the impact of the virus on the economy will be felt for years. But what about those who were vulnerable, and hidden away, to begin with? Those being trafficked and held in modern slavery.
Many crimes come under the heading of ‘modern slavery’. It can be where an individual is trafficked illegally into another country or within the boundaries of a single country. Both are with the purpose of exploitation or coercion. The International Labour Organisation defines it as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily”.
STOP THE TRAFFIK is a charity that works to raise awareness about the pernicious nature of modern slavery within 21st Century society. Founded in 2006 by Steve Chalke, it was initially set up as a two-year campaign which marked 200 years since the abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.
Annette Maudsley, Stop the Traffik’s Liverpool co-ordinator, highlights the realities of lockdown for some of the most vulnerable people in our city, noting that “poverty can lead people in to desperate situations”.
There is anecdotal evidence that it’s not uncommon for people to be brought to Liverpool from places such as Bulgaria for 100 euros, and as Liverpool is within easy reach of at least two airports, a port city and near to both Dublin and Holyhead, there are multiple entry points. But what do you do if you can’t work to pay back that debt once you’re here due to a global pandemic?
As well as highlighting the signs of trafficking through education and information, the charity encourages people to report concerns. However, individuals can be wary of the consequences; how likely are you to report your concerns that some of the women in the brothel or lap dancing bar you visited have been trafficked? This is a real problem.
A further issue with stemming the tide of human trafficking is that there needs to be a process in place to support those who have been trafficked after they’ve been removed – the need for money to support themselves and their families doesn’t disappear if their ‘employer’ is removed and that requires resources which are over stretched at the best of times, even before the economy has been decimated as a result of a global pandemic.
Another problem is gathering the evidence and statistics to secure legal cases against the perpetrators. Trafficked people don’t tend to be part of a settled community which means that they’re not as visible. Maudsley is realistic about the effects of lockdown on this. “If the general public are unsure of the long lasting effects of Covid-19, imagine how much harder it is to second guess how it will affect crime patterns,” she says. “If we’re not out in our communities as a result of lockdown, we don’t know what’s happening – we can’t see behind closed doors.”
The Modern Slavery Helpline saw a 56 per cent increase in cases reported to them in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, but it’s likely these figures will fall over the period covering lockdown. This isn’t a result of fewer victims. More pressingly, it is because they are now even more hidden away. Anyone vulnerable, financially or emotionally, is in a more precarious position to be exploited. “The need for information is crucial,” says Maudsley. “Even if you just suspect something you should call the Modern Slavery Helpline or complete their online form and raise your concerns.” Community equals strength; hopefully the Prime Minister will remember to act on his words about there being such a thing as society once we’re out of lockdown.
This is where an app which has been developed by STT in conjunction with IBM and Facebook comes in to its own. Used by the public to register concerns that someone might be a victim of modern slavery, the data can be analysed to spot patterns which are passed on to the police and hopefully stop future offences. “Buying and selling people for personal gain or pleasure is horrific. Once someone is trafficked it’s hard to find them and rescue them,” Maudsley explains. “If we can highlight the signs and teach about the red flags in relationships then we can hopefully stop someone being trafficked.”
Anyone can be at risk of modern slavery, not only individuals who are trafficked in to the UK. The downturn in the economy because of Covid-19 has resulted in many people facing increasingly desperate situations; it’s well documented the essentialness of food banks in our local community. The virus has meant that the number of those in financial dire straits has only risen further.
With many having the worry of being made redundant, having hours cut or becoming increasingly uncertain, and with the processing of Universal Credit besieged with problems even before the added issue of a global pandemic was added in the to mix, people will become susceptible to exploitation, forced labour or debt bondage. For some the future looks bleak. This is why we all have to be aware of the signs so we can act. “Everyone is important in fighting this crime and spotting the signs of trafficking,” Maudsley adds. “It’s a global crime, so we have to fight it on a global level, and we can do that from our windows, our door steps, our shopping trips and our daily exercise during [the lockdown].”
While slowing the tide of human trafficking is a large undertaking and one made more difficult due to lockdown restrictions, Maudsley underscores the importance of remaining engaged on the issues of modern slavery. “No one would want to be trafficked,” she underlines, “we can’t let this continue – the traffickers won’t stop so we can’t stop.”
Stop The Traffik already has a strong presence in Liverpool. A team of committed volunteers work to raise awareness of the signs of trafficking and liaise with the Merseyside Police Modern Slavery Team, the National Referral Mechanism and Border Force. There is an annual Walk For Freedom for two miles around Liverpool City Centre, coinciding this year, virus-permitting, with International Anti-Trafficking day on 17th October. And earlier this year, Open Eye Gallery worked in conjunction with Stop The Traffik to host an exhibition of photographs by Amy Romer which documented the sometimes innocuous locations from which people had been freed across the country.
With more exposure to the problem comes a greater understanding. The hidden economy of Merseyside is part of the economy nonetheless. Domestic servitude, debt bondage and forced labour imposed by violence and intimidation, as well as financial coercion and work carried out under threats of exposing legal status for the illegally trafficked persons, all contribute to the underbelly of the economy. It’s everyone’s responsibility to think about the impact of where they spend their money; just like legitimate delivery companies who are busy during this time, other more nefarious deliveries and transaction are still taking place.
The effects of the pandemic on gig venues, musicians and the night-time economy in general are awaited with baited breath. What the night-time economy creates is big contributors to Liverpool’s financial stability. We love our music, gigs, festivals and a meal out. And most of us are thankfully lucky enough to have control over where we spend our money. We should be discerning and question the effect it will have upon individuals, even down to where band merchandise has been made, and we should continue to question these things post-lockdown.
Coronavirus has not made life easier for anyone, but one positive could be that as we come together to appreciate our local areas, we become more aware that there is potential for people to be exploited and coerced in the midst our very own communities. As Maudsley concludes: “We can’t give up on the victims who are trapped. We have to keep raising awareness of this crime so that people can get rescued.” If we forcibly act against the practices of modern slavery, then we’d be a step nearer not just to a virus that doesn’t discriminate, but a fairer society in general.
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