They head for London in the hope of escaping poverty – but the slave masters are waiting

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Down a dirt track on the outskirts of Lagos, sitting in a bare concrete safe house behind an eight-foot fence, the women told me their stories. How they had left their homes after the promise of a better life in Europe, only to find themselves beaten, abused, raped and forced to work as prostitutes.

Recognised as victims of trafficking and returned to safety in Nigeria, these were the lucky ones, although some of them struggled to believe it. But in bleak rooms all over London and the UK, their fellow victims are still being exploited and abused. 

Anywhere that people dream of a better life, traffickers lie in wait to take advantage of them. Just as it is an international centre of other kinds of business, London has become a global hub for modern slavery.

As Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, tells the Standard: “London is a global city, truly multicultural, and while that’s one of the best things about the capital, we know that criminals have also exploited that. 

“London has a huge population with busy airports and a big economy. There is immense demand for illicit services. The criminals have been getting away with it for far too long. 

“Compared to smuggling guns or drugs, trafficking of people has been seen as low-risk. We need to develop an understanding of the whole threat picture. 

“Until recently we’ve been operating on unfounded intelligence, or myths. If we don’t get these basics right, our response will be wrong.”

Ten key signs that someone is a victim

Spot the red flags and help stop slavery

Is someone always watching them?

Do they have injuries that appear to be the result of an assault?

Do they seem frightened or won’t look you in the eye?

Do they always wear the same few clothes?

Do they look starving or neglected?

Are they living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded conditions?

Do they live and work at the same address?

Are they being controlled by a “boyfriend”?

Do they have ID documents?

Are their travel arrangements unusual?

The National Referral Mechanism identified almost 4,000 potential victims last year, from a staggering 108 countries. As our map shows, the most common foreign nationalities of the victims are Albanian, Vietnamese and Nigerian, followed by Chinese and Romanian. 

Given that Mr Hyland estimates the true number of victims to be much higher, up to 13,000 and, according to the National Crime Agency, possibly in the tens of thousands, it’s likely there are even more countries involved.

Mr Hyland has launched a report into the trafficking routes from Vietnam. One of his goals as commissioner is  to show the complex relationships between Britain and origin countries, each of which has distinct cultural factors that can seem alien to British observers. 

Nigerian women might fear a Juju curse. Vietnamese boys — young males make up the largest cohort of Vietnamese modern slaves in Britain — live in fear of debt. A typical case might involve a friend or neighbour offering work in London to someone in the north of Vietnam. As identified in the commissioner’s report, the price for transport could be anything from £10,000 to £33,000. 

As collateral, the victim’s parents might hand over the “red book”, the deeds to their property. The journey could take months, with various overland routes leading to France, where the victim will wait with hundreds of other Vietnamese people for an opportunity to cross the Channel. Along the way, beatings and rape are common. Even if they get to the UK, they will almost never repay the debt.

How are victims identified? Why?

Re-trafficking is another key issue. Once a Vietnamese person has been released from one exploitative situation, through escape, especially from less secure children’s facilities or a raid, they can often find themselves walking the streets. 

It’s easy for them to end up being exploited again. It might be a nail bar, for example, rather than a cannabis farm: often the two businesses are interconnected, with nail bars used to launder drug profits.

Parosha Chandran, the UK’s leading anti-slavery barrister and a United Nations expert on trafficking, says part of the problem is the lack of co-ordination between police departments. Too often, raids focus on disrupting the place of illegal cannabis cultivation, rather than investigating who is responsible for running the sophisticated, often multi-million-pound drug business the trafficking victims are caught up in. 

‘Time for critical leadership’: anti-slavery lawyer Parosha Chandran

Until a landmark case she won, children and adults found cultivating cannabis in this manner were prosecuted as criminals, rather than recognised as being victims of modern slavery. 

“It’s time for some critical leadership on investigating modern slavery,” she says. “There are two crimes being committed [in these cases]: human trafficking and the illegal cultivation of drugs. 

“Both have all the hallmarks of organised crime. Police departments must club together their expertise on financial crime, drug crime, modern slavery and witness protection to have an effective response. 

“They need to trace money streams, preserve evidence at the scene and offer witness protection to victims to encourage them to come forward, to help with prosecutions. These gangs rule by fear.”

While law enforcement has a part to play, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. Londoners who use cannabis, or visit nail bars or car washes, have a responsibility to spot the signs, and fight the modern slavery that goes on under their noses.

Take action to end slavery by going to our online activity platform.

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