In the UK, the legal system has utterly failed trafficking victims, focusing largely on the supposed threat posed by those victims, as opposed to the much more severe threats they face.
Under Article 8 of the EU Trafficking Directive [2011/36/EU, Article 2], victims of trafficking are protected from prosecution for involvement in criminal activities. The rationale for this is obvious - victims of trafficking will by definition have been forced to commit crimes such as illegal drug cultivation or prostitution. Furthermore, in entering the UK the vast majority of trafficked migrants will find themselves in violation of immigration rules. Still, it is often the trafficking victims, rather than the traffickers, who face prosecution.
Despite the vast problems alluded to above, there have been no UK prosecutions of Vietnamese traffickers to date. According to Philippa Southwell, a lawyer currently representing more than 50 Vietnamese victims of human trafficking, many Vietnamese young people remain in prison for cannabis offences, despite having been forced into criminality. “I am busier than ever,” she says. “There are prosecutions on a daily basis. It is alarming that we are still prosecuting victims of trafficking.”
Traffickers are aware of this reality and often threaten their victims that if they contact the authorities, they will be deported. By rendering this claim accurate through their policy, the UK authorities often represent a further motivation for victims to obey their traffickers. The current government’s motivation to prevent trafficking is to curb migration, rather than to protect the human rights of trafficking victims. The argument is often that irregular migration represents a threat to the sovereignty of the state to control its own borders. Thus the trafficking victims themselves are represented as the cause of the supposed problem – migrants – rather than as the victims of the real problem – trafficking. Increasingly, irregular migration is viewed as a threat to state security, connected to the notion that irregular migration and asylum can provide channels of entry for criminals and terrorist networks.
Inherent in such ideas is the profound misconception that there are a huge number of irregular migrants in Britain, capable of overwhelming the culture and economy of the UK. In reality, on any estimate, irregular migration makes up only a small proportion of total migration. Irregular migrants register in the tens of thousands at the most, whereas, for example, the UK takes in 120,000 foreign students per year, alongside over 200,000 who enter as regular migrants on work permits.