UK risks becoming a haven for trafficking exploitation post-Brexit

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson

The crime of modern slavery is not like any other I have reported on. The effect it has on its victims is shattering. They have witnessed and gone through experiences too dreadful for most of us to comprehend.

This week I met a young woman called Victoria, who was born in Moldova. She was beautiful and well-dressed but her appearance belied the abject horror of her early life. She was taken from her village by a trafficker at the age of 14.

“They didn’t leave me alone. They didn’t leave my family alone. They are like vultures, and there is not just one of them. They are everywhere," she said.

For 15 years of her life she was bought and sold across Eastern Europe, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Austria, and the UK. At one point she was sold at a ‘human market’ in Slovenia.

“I was just passed from one to the other like a sack of potatoes,” she said.

Life in transit for a victim like Victoria is above all terrifying, but it is also confusing and disorientating. They are in an alien country. They don’t know where they are, where they're going or what might happen to them.

“I could not escape. I could not run away. I was too young, too vulnerable. I was just taken and did what I was told to do. You're just a slave. To save your life. To save yourself from an extra bruise, from an extra humiliating feeling that breaks the last bit in you. You just carry on.”

There are fears Brexit could impact trafficking into the UK. Credit: ITV News

She broke down and cried in front of me several times that morning. She was re-living her experiences by talking to me, but she wanted to because she wants to change how victims like her are treated and protected at the borders. Victoria crossed into the UK twice with fake documents forged by her abusers.

Once she was in the back of a lorry that arrived at Holyhead, the other she came by plane.

“It was very easy, when we passed control nobody even looked in the lorry. My pimp just said he was travelling with his wife, gave them my false passport, and they didn’t even ask to see me. The authorities should be doing something about it.”

Our borders are already porous, and according to Phil Brewer, who used to lead the Metropolitan Police's Modern Slavery Unit scrutiny needs to be tighter. I asked him to put our security capability on a scale from 1 to 10.

“In terms of human trafficking, I'd say a 3 or a 4,” was his response.

Phil now works with the Human Trafficking Foundation, and has helped with their research into the effect Brexit will have on our vulnerability. It concludes that we will be more at risk from traffickers coming here wanting to exploit people come January 1st because we may no longer have access to European intelligence databases like Europol, Eurojust, the Schengen Information System and the Passenger Name Records data.

These intelligence networks have been built up over 50 years, and enable us to know about the history of a criminal who presents themselves at our border.

“The systems we've got used to using mean that we have access to similar information on foreign nationals that are intent on offending within the UK as we would do if we were operating in the country they were from. Come the 1st January, we will end up relatively blind in terms of people's previous convictions and if they pose a risk in the UK," Phil said.

The HTF believes the only way to tackle modern slavery is with effective border control and identification processes, safe legal and fair routes into the UK and by prioritising the safety of those who might be exploited.

Someone who agrees is Karen Bradley, who took the Modern Slavery Bill to Parliament. She’s worried that no longer being a member of Europe, so not having access to these systems, means we will become “the destination of choice for traffickers,” as she put it.

“If they can see there's a way to get into the UK that means they don't have to go through the same checks as they do through other countries, they're going to come here. There's a simple fix, it'll take negotiation but we need access to those databases.”

Those who could of course make that happen – the Home Office - declined to be interviewed by ITV News this week, but the Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins gave us this statement.

“Modern slavery and human trafficking are abhorrent crimes that the government is committed to tackling.

“We will continue to coordinate law enforcement efforts by working closely with EU partners to target trafficking routes across Europe, provide protection to the most vulnerable and take tough action against those who seek to exploit people for financial gain.

“Border Force undertakes checks of everyone scheduled to arrive in the UK. Our work at the border to protect the vulnerable will continue to be a priority for the Home Office after the Transition Period comes to an end on January 1.”

They are not words that reassure victims like Victoria, a woman now forced to live in the shadows.

The Home Office - declined to be interviewed by ITV News this week, but provided a statement. Credit: ITV News

"I don't think this should be happening to us, to vulnerable women, to young kids."

Victoria explained to me how being treated like a commodity feels.

“I feel like my life was taken. I didn’t exist. I was nothing. I was just a body. I even forgot my own name sometimes”

Victoria is not her real name but an identity she uses to hide her past life. She now wants to protect others from having to pretend they don’t exist.