Crime, punishment and the 'wrong kind' of victim of trafficking

By Stacy Ziebell, Eaves' Prisons and Detention Centres Worker

First published by TrustLaw Women

Yesterday was Anti-Slavery Day; a day to raise awareness to end modern day slavery in the UK and around the world.

If you looked at the media coverage yesterday, you would have been painted a picture of the UK winning the fight against human trafficking with victims being given the support and protection they deserve. Amidst all the coverage of policemen storming into brothels and rescuing children and women from horrible circumstances, a darker more silent story has been left untold.

It begins in the less conspicuous surroundings of a bail hearing where I, a support worker at Eaves’ Poppy Project, was supporting Kim*, a woman who the Government has formally identified as a potential victim of trafficking. It was here that I witnessed one of the biggest travesties of justice.

It seems that there is a ‘right kind’ of victim of trafficking and absurdly Kim did not fit that profile.

Her story is similar to many others trafficked into the UK. Kim was made promises of a new and better life in the UK working as an interpreter, but upon arrival she was forced to do unpaid domestic work and was used as a sex slave. Kim was not permitted to leave the house unless accompanied by men from the gang who were controlling her. She was arrested along with her exploiters when the police raided two houses belonging to the gang, one of which was used for cannabis cultivation.

Kim was charged in connection to the gangs criminal activities and has since spent many months in prison. She underwent a trial in which she was forced to sit alongside her traffickers in the dock, while they made threatening comments to her. The Judge had no sympathy for her plight and refused all applications to drop her case, despite the fact that British immigration authorities had already recognised her as a potential victim of trafficking. The Judge also refused the option of hearing her case separately from the gang members, regardless of the serious threats to her safety.

Kim has been officially recognised by the National Referral Mechanism (the government identification system) as a potential victim of trafficking, and as such she should be afforded protection and appropriate accommodation in line with government policy and international law.

As Kim was picked up in a house connected with cannabis cultivation, I suspect that she is seen as the ‘wrong kind’ of victim by both the police who interviewed her, by the CPS who decided to prosecute her and by the Judge. It seems from yesterday’s media coverage it is largely believed that the ‘right kind’ of victim is a person rescued from a brothel, a child who is being forced to clean houses or a man who is made to do hard labour for hours on end for no pay. The truth is that these are all victims of trafficking but so is Kim who did nothing wrong and was kept captive by a criminal gang. Perhaps if Kim had fit into a ‘typical’ trafficking profile then she would be given access to the support she deserves and the justice she is entitled to. Instead, Kim will remain in prison.

Why is Kim being sent back to prison on Antislavery Day and what does this say about the UK’s commitment to ending modern day slavery?

As far as I am aware I am the only professional whose sole responsibility it is to identify, assess and assist detained female victims of trafficking. Every day I work with women who are victims of trafficking who are treated as criminals. Starting today, I want to see the British Government increase their efforts to ensure all victims of trafficking are identified, not criminalised and detained, and are given the support they so desperately need and are entitled to.

Much of the needed policy is already in place but every day I see the authorities disregarding the official guidance issued to them. As a country we are still sending many innocent, vulnerable women to a terrible fate they do not deserve and charities such as Eaves are the ones to pick up the pieces.

*Not her real name.

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