Earlier this year, I interviewed a group of young Bangladeshi men who had been trafficked into Scotland to work in the hotel services industry. They had been deceived, abused, exploited and threatened into working under forced labour conditions, some of them for months, others for years. As they revealed the harrowing circumstances of their stories, equally as shocking was the way in which they had been treated after they had finally escaped their situation.
Throughout their ordeal – from victim identification, psycho-social support, legal representation and financial redress – they should have felt protected by a system aimed at prosecuting their perpetrator and providing them with support. Yet at every turn, when they could have received significant help by an organisation or authority, they were turned away or ignored. Without proper criminal, immigration, and employment law joined up to protect victims of trafficking, these men have been forced to leap over the massive gaps in a system that lacks adequate human rights-centred legislation to address this growing problem.
In Edinburgh this September I was invited to attend the consultation launch of a new, comprehensive piece of legislation to address human trafficking in Scotland, the new Human Trafficking (Scotland) Bill. As mentioned in my last blog piece, Scotland, and the wider UK, trails woefully behind many countries in its identification and prosecution of traffickers. Though a victim of human trafficking is identified every four days in Scotland, the prosecutions of traffickers may be counted on one hand. It is therefore heartening to see this bill – a bold step towards addressing this issue. Last week the MSP heading up this bill, Jenny Marra MSP Dundee, and its co-writer, Graham O’Neill, put out articles outlining some of major points of the bill here and here. In brief, this bill unifies disparate legislation used to prosecute human trafficking, bringing it under one roof and codifying its legal definitions to make for a more streamlined process, aiming to tackle the problem more aggressively. The bill calls for greater leadership in improving victim identification while also enshrining into Scots law the EU directive for the non-criminalisation of victims. And finally, the bill calls for an impressive multi-agency approach to deliver a supportive survivor service. This is both unique and incredibly crucial, as it provides a greater degree of onus on agencies, to ensure that no one slips through the cracks. Dr Anne T. Gallagher, a leading expert on human trafficking policy and a former special adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on human trafficking said that if passed, the new bill would be “the most innovative and comprehensive piece of anti-trafficking legislation in the world.” This issue has been building momentum north of the border since the Equality and Human Rights Commission published their Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland in 2011, with a new update published in February this year. It calls for a more encompassing piece of legislation such as this one currently in consultation.
While the Scottish government is considering introducing a statutory aggravation for human trafficking in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, aimed at dissolving the issue of corroboration in criminal trials, and the Home Secretary has announced a new Modern Slavery Bill which promises to deliver a strong criminal justice approach, the Survivors Service offered in Scotland’s proposed Human Trafficking Bill offers the most comprehensive service to address the vital needs of its victims. Placing the needs of the victim first, the bill addresses problems such as identification, support services and referral, while acknowledging their vulnerable status – most importantly prioritising these issues over immigration. The UKBA is placed outside the decision-making process and minimum standards have been put in place to provide victims with safe accommodation, counselling, health care and information on their legal rights. The Human Trafficking (Scotland) Bill is still in its consultation phase, but it already shows an awareness not only of the criminal justice issues required to root out traffickers, but of the urgent needs of survivors who are easily lost in the bureaucratic maze of British laws and legality.
Only through the help of a few empathetic individuals have the four Bangladesh men been able to pursue their cases pro-bono and temporarily find work to support their families back home. Yet they continue to live a precarious existence, remaining in legal limbo where they live a day-to-day existence faced with traumatic memories and financial insecurity. The UK and Scottish government has publicly denounced slavery on its shores and is promising to end the scourge of human trafficking it says is rife in its cities and towns. Now is the time to have political courage to go beyond the rhetoric to see how legislation can reach the lives of the people that need it most – the survivors.
Mei-Ling McNamara is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, working in both print and broadcast media. She is a doctoral candidate in Trans-Disciplinary Documentary Film at the University of Edinburgh where her work is focused on forced labour, trauma and the politics of slavery in Britain. Her documentary Children of the Cannabis Trade, broadcast on Al-Jazeera English, won the 2011 Human Trafficking Foundation Media Award for Best TV Documentary. She is currently based in Edinburgh.